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Review: Emotional 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is extraordinary

With indelible characters and an emotional, effective story, director Benh Zeitlin has made an inspiring film.

July 26, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Actors Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as Wink in a scene from "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Actors Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as Wink in a scene… (Fox Searchlight )

The Bathtub is a place of myths and wonders, a broken down teardrop of Louisiana marsh and mud in"Beasts of the Southern Wild"and the setting for an extraordinary new drama whose fierceness, like its 6-year-old heroine Hushpuppy, grabs on and won't let go.

Director Benh Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar, a playwright whose "Juicy and Delicious" was the inspiration, have created characters that are wondrously indelible, distinctive of voice and set them inside a story that will unleash a devastating hurricane, and a flood of emotions, before it is done.

This is a remarkably skilled first feature for the filmmakers and its fusion of fable and soulful reality has been widely embraced on the festival circuit starting with Sundance in January, where it won the top prize. Last month it added the prestigious Camera d'Or at Cannes, marking it essentially the best of the best, and no doubt more notice will deservedly follow.

VIDEO: Q&A with the 'Beasts' cast and crew

"Beasts" is both a modest and ambitious film. In a sense, it tells nothing more than a fundamental story about the bond between parent and child forged by the trials and triumphs that frame the process of growing up. But Hushpuppy's journey becomes a window into the culture of the dispossessed, the influence of a close-knit community and the empowerment that is possible when a child's imagination is encouraged to roam free.

Like other boundary-breaking indies before it — say the cold world of 2010's "Winter's Bone"with Jennifer Lawrence's teenager forced into a fast and fraught adulthood, or Wes Anderson's lovely new"Moonrise Kingdom" that dipped heavily into the surreal for its tale of kids at odds with the lives they've been handed — "Beasts" is yet another unforgettable cinematic treatise on the difficulties of childhood.

The story begins on an ordinary day in Hushpuppy's life, played with a stunning tenacity by young Quvenzhane Wallis. She lives in a jerry-built shack in a backwater bayou. It's raised on stilts in deference to the water that can rise deadly and fast. There's no sign of a mother, though her presence will be felt at every turn. Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, a New Orleans baker making an impressive acting debut), lives within shouting distance in the rusted out shell of a bus. It is a reflection of the relationship — there is love, but a certain distance as well.

Hushpuppy is precocious, always wondering about her place in the universe. When not dealing with the gritty reality of the Bathtub, her flights of fancy fill the screen with magic, from the particles floating in the air to visions of the Ice Age and the long extinct Aurochs that Hushpuppy is convinced will rise again.

Wink is a wiry, irascible man who has a habit of doling out fatherly wisdom in impatient angry bursts. He drinks too much and laughs too loud and nearly always in the company of the other residents of Bathtub, a collection of hardscrabble types who end most nights passed out from the local hooch. They are a racial mix and color blind, tightly bound by their poverty and sense of place. They have names like Jean Battiste (Levy Easterly), Walrus (Lowell Landes) and Little Jo (Pamela Harper), and live by their wits and what they can catch from the sea. Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) is the local teacher, artist and herbalist who puts resilience right up there with the other Rs in terms of what kids need to know.

Hushpuppy is an artist of sorts herself, sketching out the events in her life on whatever surface is handy, always trying to get to the heart of things. The heart that is the most troubled is Wink's. His failing health, the approaching storm and why people choose to stay in the face of certain disaster will drive what happens in the film.

AWARDS: Oscars 2013

Although there is much about the real world that colors "Beasts," the movie lives and breathes in fabulistic realms. Typical is an evocative scene that comes when things have gone from bad to worse, as they do several times. In this case, Hushpuppy sets out in search of something elusive, a way to fill the void of the missing mother. It leads her to a place of unexpected comfort that is wrapped in a warm gauzy glow.

One of the more ridiculous moments is furnished by Wink and his cronies, who devise a plan to rescue the Bathtub that involves an alligator, some ingenuity and the levee. Throughout, Zeitlin keeps the serious, the surreal and the just plain crazy in balance.

"Beasts" was shot on location in Louisiana and pulls much of its cast from the locals, including the rare find of Wallis. She's a string bean of a girl with the eyes of Wednesday's child of woe and the indomitable spirit of a warrior. When she pounds a table and yells "I am 'da man' it comes from such an authentic place that it's clear this is a serious talent to be reckoned with.

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