Monday, August 6, 2012

Beasts of The Southern Wild

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry (93 min.)

All of the actors in Beasts of The Southern Wild are not actors.  These are people in and from the region south of New Orleans, near "The Bathtub" where the film takes place.  It is an area severed from modern living, cut off from the real world where the majority of us roam.  Houses are built up on mounds of dirt and stilts to combat the consistently rising and falling ocean tides.  There is electricity, but I doubt there is running water or plumbing - though we never get into the bathroom habits of these characters.  The film examines the inhabitants of this bathtub as they refuse to give up their way of life in the face of certain death by flood.  It is an inspirational film, indeed, and it can be powerful at times.  But Beasts lacks forward momentum or a driving thematic element outside of the desire to show strong will and determination.

At the heart of Beasts is Hushpuppy, a precocious six-year old played by Quvenzhane Wallis.  Hushpuppy is a strong spirit in an unforgiving world.  She lives with - at least in close proximity of - her father, Wink, played by Dwight Henry.  Wink is a stern but loving father, who is determined to teach young Hushpuppy how to take care of herself.  The two live among a small community of straong-willed people, both white and black, who love their land and have no desire to better their living conditions.  Days consist of catching food, cooking, and socializing.  Their is something beautiful in the primitive nature of this society, and director Benh Zeitlin allows this world to develop organically on the screen.  Although, much of the time, he gets too caught up in the shaky cam.

The continuing theme of the film involves the environment and the human connection with nature.  Hushpuppy seems more in tune with the creatures in her world, the pigs and dogs and livestock, than she does with any of the people.  There is also a mythological back story involving creatures frozen in the icebergs of the South Pole who break free of their prison and float towards The Bathtub.  The confrontation is what I expected between Hushpuppy and these giant hog-like creatures. 

Hushpuppy also longs to meet her mother, whom she hasn't known most of her short life.  Wallis has been lauded as a force of nature on screen.  To this, I will say she is a commanding presence in the natural world of the film, but I never felt like she was doing much more than simply being a six-year old in front of the camera.  She delivers a solid performance, but how much of it is really acting?  Aside from the final moments of the film, I would think most of her performance is just her acting her age.

Beasts of The Southern Wild has been harolded as a masterpiece.  I don't see that.  What I do see is a competent film with compelling themes and solid performances.  But the direction feels lacking, and the camera work is much too frenetic for a picture like this.  In no way did I hate Beasts, but in no way did I fall head over heels in love.