Based upon the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar
Screenplay Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
**** (four stars)
There are four star movies and then there are FOUR STAR MOVIES.
Throughout this cinematic year, I have awarded the high rating of four stars to several films already. Typically, during a movie year, I tend to award that rating to at least one or two pictures and then, Hollywood being Hollywood, they release the truly great films beginning in late Autumn, through the remainder of the year and even into January and February of the following year due to release schedules and strategies. I have long bemoaned the fashion of releasing the great films solely during the final four months of the year, leaving eight months of some strong films but mostly films that are either forgettable, sub par, terrible to just plain unwatchable or even those that I wouldn't even consider screening at all. As an art form, I feel that it is the film community's responsibility to at least, try to create and release the highest quality of material, regardless of film style or genre, through the year as a whole. Certainly not everything can be great but just try to place the art before the commerce and all going well, the art and commerce can walk proudly hand in hand.
But for last year and this year, there seems to be a certain artistic shift in the air. A shift that is undoubtedly for the better. As I have said before, either through this site or in person, all I wish for when I go to the movies is exactly the same things that you wish for. I wish to be entertained. I wish to be affected. I wish to have a story told to me as best as possible. This year, my four star ratings have been plentiful and trust me, I am not an easy person to receive four stars from! That said, I know what I like, how I like it and the emotions I exist through when I see what I feel to be cinematic greatness. Yet, even all four star movies are not the same. Sometimes, there are the types of four star movies that truly raise the bar and even re-invent what we already know about movies so much so that it changes exactly what we think a movie can actually be. This afternoon, I exited a screening of Director Benh Zeitlin's debut feature "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," and while I initially had no idea whatsoever of what I could write about, I knew how it had affected me. I knew that I had lived through an experience unlike any other that I have had this cinematic year...and for that matter, most cinematic years. And I knew that when I began to write this review to you, I would enthusiastically implore and urge you to go and seek this film out when it happens to reach your area. "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is a magical, harrowing, poetic, profound experience that demands to be embraced and held highly over our collective shoulders as this is a film that is unlike anything else playing in our multiplexes and movie houses right now. It is a cinematic dream world unto itself.
Set in a nearly forgotten world beyond the outskirts of the New Orleans levees, "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" tells the story of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (played with unwavering intensity by Quvenzhane Wallis) and her adventurous life inside of a community known as "The Bathtub." Despite her young age, Hushpuppy possesses a firm and fierce understanding of the universe and her place within it as she believes in the unshakable inter-connectivity of all that exists and if just one thing were out of place, the universe itself would begin to unravel.
When her Father, Wink (an equally intense Dwight Henry) contracts an illness, Hushpuppy's view of the universe explodes into fruition as ferocious storms arrive, temperatures rise, the polar ice caps begin to melt and prehistoric creatures, which seem to be a hybrid of mammoth pigs and buffaloes known as "aurochs," re-emerge into civilization and begin their awesome trek towards Hushpuppy.
As with many films released this year, this is as much as I can feel that I can share with you about the film's actual plot. Most certainly, I wish for you to experience "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" as freshly as possible but also, this is really not quite the type of movie that can necessarily be explained. The sheer greatness of this film deeply rests within the way in which this seemingly simple story is told as Zeitlin constructs a tale that can exist simultaneously as a powerful examination of poverty in 21st century America, a Father/daughter relationship film, mythology merged with the intense nature of fever dreams, an epic adventure saga, primal connections to the elements and family, the resourcefulness and love between the various members of community, survivalism, and the symbiotic nature we share with all living things. In many ways, this film felt to be a close cousin to something like Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life" (2011), but in this case, we are seeing the world and universe entirely through the eyes, mind and soul of a ferociously determined small child.
I have absolutely no idea of how and where the filmmakers could have ever found Quvenzhane Wallis but she is truly a natural, feral, cosmic force of nature. Complete with her stunningly wild hair, ever present white rain boots, and a penetrating hard stare that blazes through the screen, Wallis is unlike any child actor that I have seen in a very long time. She is the definition of "unique" and "original" and her dramatic abilities to convey a universe worth of emotions with such directness and simplicity are near miraculous. She makes Hushpuppy a true young heroine to follow. She makes Hushpuppy a true cinematic heroine, especially during a time when most movies give lip service to female heroines instead of actually creating them. Yes, that statement plus the title of this piece are my veiled references to Pixar's epic failure "Brave," a film that completely sacrificed the strength and power of its leading heroine Merida for market researched theatrics, run of the mill storytelling and hefty box office receipts.
"Beasts Of The Southern Wild" shows so masterfully exactly how to completely honor a character like Hushpuppy. Never, ever treat her as a novelty or as a gimmick. Just believe in her and her story with tremendous honesty, humanity and understanding and as if she were a completely real individual living through a seismically transforming existence. Hushpuppy is heroic to me through her matter of fact nature of survival and stupendously empathetic relationship with everything that surrounds her. She elicits levels of bravery that poor Merida, for instance, could never achieve because her storytellers let her down so spectacularly. Not so with Hushpuppy as Zeitlin and his filmmaking team have worked just as heroically to ensure the entire humanity of the story and characters shines brightly from beginning to end.
Now, I would not be surprised if some of you take issue with the nature of the Father/daughter relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy as Wink's version of tough love may feel to border on the edges of child abuse. Well...to that, I would have to ask you to place all of our modern day, modern civilization notions of child rearing aside and really place yourselves into the mindset and lives of those who are living on what seems to feel like the physical edge and end of the world. A place where modern technology and conveniences do not exist. Where your lives are completely at the mercy of the elements and what you possess may literally exist upon your backs and the community and the people within that community are the sole items that tether you to the Earth.
Wink is delivering the tools that Hushpuppy will need to survive, especially as he exists in a state where he will not be a part of the material world much longer. His rage is deeply palpable as the love of his life, Hushpuppy's Mother, has long abandoned him. He is swimming in an alcohol haze either as a disease or coping mechanism or both. His frustrations with trying to parent a small child in an unforgiving world are more than understandable. And his rants at the storming night skies feel like nothing less than howls directed at the universe itself as he lives in conflict with his illness and quickly impending mortality. As cruel as Wink can be, his love for Hushpuppy is awesome as he cannot bear to leave her in the world without having imparted her with the severe knowledge of survival. And in a few of the film's later sequences, the tenderness he reveals is shattering. Dwight Henry gives a performance of sheer authenticity and a forcefulness equal to Wallis'. They may even fool you that they are an actual real world Father/daughter couple. And I sincerely hope that both of them are remembered during awards season along with the film and filmmakers as a whole.
When you go to the movies, how often is it that you can say that you have actually seen something that feels new? Something that takes the language of cinema as we know it and just re-focuses it in a way where movies look completely different than before. "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is bravely and precisely that special breed of film. It's not that it necessarily feels five minutes ahead of everything else. It is just exactly how Zeitlin treats the language of cinema as a painting or as a poem as well as something that is transformative and transportive. It is the very type of film where you feel as if you have been on a journey unlike any you have taken before, or at least the type you have not taken in a very long time.
Benh Zeitlin accomplishes all of these traits while also unabashedly and unrepentantly as nothing less that the finest art. "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is a beautifully humane piece of work that is jointly esoteric, accessible and completely with enormous heart and even healthy doses of relatable humor. But, it also tests our levels of understanding and compassion, especially as we sit so comfortably inside of a movie house, a place where Hushpuppy, Wink and their friends would most likely never set foot themselves.
"Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is indeed a FOUR STAR MOVIE, one I sincerely hope that you all take a chance upon. Films like this need our support more than ever and believe me, Hushpuppy's journey is sublimely unforgettable.
"Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is easily one of 2012's highest cinematic achievements.