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Review: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

See this demanding but enthralling gem.

 

The truly great American films of the past few decades are, alas, few and far between. I can remember FARGO as being a benchmark for me as a film that hit every frame with total perfection. I was overwhelmed and stayed for two showings back-to-back to make sure it was as good the second time; it was!

And now, thankfully, in mid-summer, a real gem has come our way.

All too rarely a film comes along that changes the way you see the world, alters your perception of reality and leaves you exhilarated, dizzy and emotionally drained. 

Such is the case with Beasts of the Southern Wild. No major stars, nothing blows up, no space aliens or car chases, but go see it. I am thrilled this "indie" gem has made it to wider release after a run at the art houses. Miss it and be the poorer for it. You will not regret it. 

The film features an astonishing performance by an untrained six-year-old with the unpronounceable name of Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, and even at that tender age, she is a true force of nature in every sense.  In fact nature should be listed in the credits as co-star, given that the residents of the  Bathtub, where the action of the film is set, are subject on a daily basis to the whims, joys and terrors of “mother nature” as seen in few films I can think of.  

All of us remember the devastation of hurricane Katrina, and residents of the outer wards of New Orleans are still suffering its aftermath.The “South” has provided a veritable cornucopia of literary figures throughout history, and that rich territory has proved fertile again in director Benh Zeitlin’s dizzyingly original opus which he co-wrote with Lucy Alibar, based on her stage play. 

Hushpuppy lives with her dad Wink (Dwight Henry) in a no-man’s land of shacks, levees and swamps, populated with human creatures that might as well be Martians. So apart from mainstream Americana are these wonderfully drawn characters.

One watches Beasts as one would observe animals in a zoo, awestruck by the originality of their creation and humbled and inspired by their fierce determination to live in conditions where the sight of a television, computer or a supermarket would be so out of place as to appear ludicrous. Wink is given to drink and bouts of rage and despair, but Hushpuppy weathers all this with an air of strength and courage far beyond her tender age. When she pounds her tiny fists on a table and shouts “I am da man,” it is defiance in the face of adversity that is at once hilarious and touching.  

There is much preparation for an upcoming storm that threatens the entire “town” and its inhabitants but plot here is really beside the point. How do you describe art? Come to Beasts ready to be challenged emotionally and you will be rewarded ten-fold. 

Jeff Klayman is an award-winning playwright whose works have been produced in New York, Los Angeles and London. He also wrote the screenplay for the independent film Adios, Ernesto, directed by Mervyn Willis.

Jean August 18, 2012 at 05:32 PM
Loved the movie! It should be pointed out that Dwight Henry, who does a great job, too is not an actor by trade. This is his first acting role. He owns a bakery in New Orleans and went to try outs for the movie on a lark.

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