Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Caitlin's Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild

by Caitlin Murphy
Walking into Beasts of the Southern Wild, I knew about as little as one can know about a film before seeing it.  I had glimpsed the poster image.  And what I thought I saw was the back-lit silhouette of a long-armed alien.  The alien turned out to be Hushpuppy, a 6-year old black girl, running through the woods, holding fire-crackers, and trailing sparks behind her.  And from the film’s opening images – Hushpuppy alone, wearing boy’s briefs and rubber boots, playing in the mud and pressing little animals to her ear in attempt to hear their thoughts – I knew I was a stranger in an endearingly strange land.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Behn Zeitlin, who co-wrote the screenplay with his friend Lucy Alibar (based on her play Juicy and Delicious), is a sort of dark fantasy set off the shores of Louisiana in an area known to its residents, as “The Bathtub”.  Hushpuppy and her hardened father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in separate raised trailers, surrounded by their animals (some pets, some dinner).  When a massive storm descends on them, “The Bathtub” is flooded; the few who remain alive join together, as survival become an even more brutal game. This impromptu family is also filled with caring and kindness though, and lessons abound about always watching out for the littlest ones among us.  As Hushpuppy intuitively knows with her animals – we must listen hardest for the voices we can’t hear.

The mise-en-scene in Beasts of the Southern Wild is itself a filmmaking feat.  With so many locations, so much water(!), and such crazily cramped and dilapidated spaces, the attention to detail is remarkably evocative.  One couldn’t help but wonder how much of the rich environments was already in situ and how much was staged.  And with half the cast hailing from Louisiana bayou country, the sense of place  in the film is intimately drawn and acutely felt.  The real-life images of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, as well as those of other recent disasters, of course, hang awkwardly in the air. 

The levee that separates ‘civilized society’ from “The Bathtub”, protecting it from the flood, serves in the film as a metaphorical divide between those aware of nature’s dominance, and those who naively seek to obliterate it.  And through Hushpuppy’s imaginings of massive icebergs crumbling, and pre-historic beasts grunting back to life, we are reminded that our sense of control over nature is illusory, and that we are heading for a painful wake-up call to that effect.  In this sense, a central tenet of the film seems to be, very broadly, that a reckoning is coming.

As the young Hushpuppy, the even younger Quvenzhane Wallis (her mother brought her to audition for the film at 5 years old, even though the call for actors said they had to be 6) is fiery, vulnerable, and eerily present.  Her father calls her ‘man’ and fervently drills into her his most treasured life-lessons– how to rip a crab apart (‘beast it!’), flex one’s muscles, and not ever ever cry – and Hushpuppy goes toe-to-toe with him just as he implores her to.   She doesn’t so much try to match others though, as she does to meet them.

In one of the film’s most striking moments, Hushpuppy scribbles images of her life on a cardboard box that she hides under, as a self-set fire threatens to engulf her in her trailer.  Having learnt about cave drawings at school, she wonders how she will be remembered, deciding that if her life can’t be saved, then at least her story can be.  She asks how her existence, her father’s, and their time in “The Bathtub” will be made known to outsiders and descendants.  And in this sense, Beasts of the Southern Wildis overtly political:  Hushpuppy marches against the tendencies of history and dominant culture to shore up some stories and let others wash away.  The film is an indictment of our strange ability to ignore so many real lives lived. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild is Court 13’s first feature-length film.  Clearly, like its heroine, the company is young, small and mighty.

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