Friday, January 4, 2013
An American Classic
Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Reviewed: 3 January 2013
In 1950, William Faulkner flew to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his famous speech, Faulkner explained the art of story-telling within the burgeoning apocalyptic age:
"I decline to accept the end of man...I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past."
In Benh Zeitlin's audacious new film Beasts of the Southern Wild, Faulkner's tenet that humanity's survival hinges upon our "compassion and sacrifice and endurance" was never more clear to me then when watching six-year-old heroine Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) navigate the rising waters. Hushpuppy narrates the film, living in a makeshift bayou community called The Bathtub which looks to be outside of the levees outside lower Louisiana. She finds the beauty in her world, stopping to listen to the heartbeats of animals, to feel the grass in her fingertips, to hold her memories close. Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in ramshackle houses along the water, but there is always food, friendship, teaching, beauty, and laughter. And stories. A beacon of light always shines in the distance, calling to her. The ice-caps are melting, her father tells her. When the storm hits and the water rises, Hushpuppy and Wink must fight for their family and their community against all forces.
To say more would be a crime since part of this film involves Zeilin's jaw-dropping moments of beauty and wonder. I was confused during parts of this movie in the best way possible. There are moments of magic and terror. Zeitlin, with a small budget and cast, has crafted a film that is impossible to forget. I woke up this morning having dreamed about some of the images in this film. Hushpuppy is no Katniss Everdeen, no happy warrior. She is a precocious and inquisitive six-year-old girl in a world of unstable transformation: water and land, life and death, peace and terror. Quvenzhane Wallis's performance is otherworldly and immensely powerful; she deserves every accolade and award possible. She is sure to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but I hope that her co-star Dwight Henry will as well for Best Supporting Actor. And full credit should go to the vision of direct Benh Zeitlin who has an eye for visual style and frame composition. Zetilin positions The Bathtub as both an alternate reality and a community apart from modern values. The totality of his creation is so strong that sixty minutes into the film the simple long shot of a piece of recognizable modernity is utterly shocking. I read the film as a Hurricane Katrina allegory, but there are no simple answers here as the film wrestles with, among other things, defining a government, a community, and a family. Zeitlin's confidence in his camera and story-telling immersed me in Hushpuppy's universe. What more can you ask of a film?
Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the most creative and innovative American stories that I have seen in a while, and I hope that it gets the audience that it deserves.
Hushpuppy will endure: she will prevail.