Film Review: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

****OUT OF 4

First-time director Benh Zeitlin depends on his location and the spirit of a six year-old black girl named Hushpuppy (first-timer, Quvenzhane Wallis) as the essential characters to carry the most stunning and amazing micro-budget independent feature film of 2012 thus far. The magical location is a tiny corner of Louisiana known affectionately as “The Bathtub”, a marshy swampland settled by indigents whose ancestors were Cajuns. Because the “Bathtub” is way below sea-level and beyond the safety net of the supposed levee system it could be swept away by a hurricane with the rain-making potential of a “Katrina”. Hushpuppy with uncanny wisdom beyond her half-dozen years declares: “Any day now the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled”.

The story is derived from a stage play by co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar titled “Juicy and Delicious” but the exquisite imagery is the mise en scene of DP Ben Richardson whose work in Super 16mm is extraordinary as is the precise editing of Crockett Doob and Alfonso Goncalves.  With its voiceover setting the philosophical tone one is reminded of early Terrence Malick crossed with Mark Twain.  The mythical beasts of the title are an extinct breed of wild cattle known as “aurochs” that thunder through the land with a power and grace that garners awe. Hushpuppy’s father is named Wink (another first-time actor, Dwight Henry) who is portrayed as a delirious, violent and unpredictably emotional man who showers paternal affection on the little girl.

The key to the magic is the metaphorical tone of the picture which separates the 1% from having anything to do with these squalid poor people living in the trash heaps of industrial waste.  Hushpuppy, however, doesn’t see it that way. “We got the prettiest place on earth” she declares with righteous indignation.  As the fireworks explode with wondrous beauty we enter an untamed world that captivates our imagination. “Beasts” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2012 and Ben Richardson won the best cinematography award there as well.  At Cannes 2012, Zeitlin won the FIPRESCI prize, given by an international jury of film critics, as the best film in Un Certain Regard. This film is mandatory viewing for anyone who loves great movies.

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