Friday, July 27, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Early in Beasts of the Southern Wild, before everything goes to shit and the giant prehistoric monster hogs begin their migration toward "The Bathtub" in Louisiana, we see the two primary characters--young Hushpuppy, a six-year old girl, and her volatile dad, Wink--riding on a boat that is actually the flatbed portion of a pickup truck which has been converted into a water vessel complete with a motor and everything. WHOA! Obviously, this is cool-looking, but it's also sort of a logistical/realistic nightmare (at least in my mind). I knew little about this movie going in, but I knew at that moment it could one of two ways. Luckily, it went pretty much all the way in the correct direction.

In a fantasy film, where anything can and usually does happen, the ability to genuinely surprise an audience is often paramount to whether or not it's a success. Beasts seemed to be following a fairly predictable, albeit beautiful and emotionally-engaging arc, before Hushpuppy and three accomplices decided to jump into the ocean and swim toward a distant light. I felt happy when her dead mother cooked her fried alligator. When the children started slow-dancing with strippers in 60s-era negligee, I was floored with delight.

This is a powerful and occasionally disconcerting movie. It will make you feel things. Sure, on occasion director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin shows his emotional hand a little early (Hushpuppy's cat food and gravy dinner) or overstates the important political message in a too-obvious way. But it's never oppressive (which is good since this is such an anti-oppression film).

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film about real life that doesn't rely on real life to make its statements. In an interview with The Atlantic, Zeitlin noted, "I don't want to shit on indie film, it's just that a lot of it is not any more sophisticated than big action movies. Action movies are a lot more interesting a lot of the time because they are engaged in myth and genre and culture. You can track your culture through Hollywood, you can't track it through indie movies." This sentiment was easy to glean before I stumbled on that quote (if not so easy to articulate), and it's an angle/idea I would have never considered before seeing this film.

The greatest films never exist solely as perfect or near-perfect examples of what the medium can achieve. They actively work to expand upon the medium as well: its lexicon, its relationship to culture, and so on. Benh Zeitlin accomplishes it all; an extremely high 8 for this first time filmmaker.

SCORE: 8 out of 10

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