Friday, March 8, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

So.  Child actors.  They're typically kind of crappy, right?  Really, until the Culkin clan arrived, were there any reliably decent child actors?  Sure, every so often you would see a kid in a role that suited them well, but for every Oscar nominee, there were about a dozen Young Ron Howards.  Even today, we seem to have only one or two impressive child actors each decade, and are still cursed with an unfortunate amount of Jake Lloyds and Jonathan Lipnickis.  Every so often, awards programs find a child actor that they decide to fawn over, and Beasts of the Southern Wild was this year's choice.  Before you sit down to watch this film, you should ask yourself: Am I prepared to watch a movie about a six year-old girl?  Hint: you should be.
Hushpuppy () lives in part of the Louisiana bayou called The Bathtub.  This is a community that lives on the wet side of a levee, with no roads or electricity or government or just about anything you would expect to find in an American community.  Hushpuppy lives with her daddy, Wink ().  Well, they live by each other; each one has a dilapidated trailer, propped up by debris so they don't flood.
But they still make sure to wear matching clothes every day
Wink and all the adults in the Bathtub are usually drunk, and when Wink vanishes for a few days, Hushpuppy --- a six year-old --- doesn't make a big deal out of it and takes care of herself.  In case you were wondering, that involves eating cat food as part of her every day living.  Existing outside of society can't last forever, though.  The aftermath of a hurricane (I'm pretty sure it's Katrina, but it could have realistically been any of the six that have hit the area since then) ensures the intervention of the civilized world, and Wink's declining health complicates matters.  Still, if you're going to find a silver lining, having a child narrate your story is as good of a start as you can get.  There might be one slight stumbling block for that happy ending, though: namely, this nightmare beast:
What?  You don't know an auroch when you see one?

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the first major directorial effort from , as well as the first major motion picture developed by any member of the Court 13 collective of filmmakers.  As far as directorial debuts go, this is a pretty good one.  Zeitlin captured a subculture in America that has rarely (if ever) been captured before.  In a Google Earth world, it can sometimes be astounding to see what exists within the borders of the "civilized" world; in some ways, this movie feels like it is taking place in an anthropological nature preserve.
Look, a porcupine house, in its natural environment!
Zeitlin's camerawork starts out annoyingly shaky, thanks to the hand-held nature of it, but evened out as the film progressed.  By the end of the film, I was more impressed by the stark shots more than the nauseating beginning.
It's like Mad Max: On Water
What impressed me most, though, was how well Zeitlin handled the talent.  There are no seasoned actors in this film.  What you see are raw amateurs at work.  But Zeitlin makes them work, and work extremely well.  Wallis gave a pretty good performance for a six year-old, but her voice-over work was inspired.  The fact that Wallis looked so good --- and she definitely did --- is in no small part thanks to his editing.
The difference between this and awesome: voice-over
Speaking of the editing, I really liked how Zeitlin handled edits from a storytelling perspective.  Just take the scene where Hushpuppy recalls her mother --- that scene made me giggle with joy from a film fan's perspective.  It wasn't flashy.  It was just perfectly effective for what it needed to be.

The big story with the acting in Beasts of the Southern Wild is Quvenzhané Wallis, and justifiably so.  The movie focuses on her, and she carries it with ease.  I do not typically hype child acting, but the overall affect of her performance is staggering here.  From a strictly "acting" perspective, Wallis was pretty good.  She emoted and seemed to do what the scenes required of her.
Above: not really acting
The voice-over she provided, though, just killed me.  That is the backbone of this film, and she was heart-breakingly good when you combined those two elements.  I would argue that Zeitlin deserves more accolades than Wallis for her performance, but the bottom line is that she was pretty great.  It helps that Dwight Henry gave one of the rawest performances I can remember seeing.  I can't imagine his part being played by someone with more polish, though.  Henry played a complex character well, conveying his love, terror, and pride in surprisingly deep ways.
Who's the man?  I'M THE MAN!!!
One of his more out-of-left-field effective scenes was in the "Beast it" scene, where he initially appears inexplicably abusive, but it eventually turns into a triumph orgy.  The rest of the cast, while numerous, doesn't really impact the story at all, so I'm leaving them out of it.

In may ways, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a sad bastard movie.  It is designed to make you cry, and it probably will make you tear up.  This culture appears to be living in a dump AND a 200-year time warp at the same time.  Just making a documentary about these people and the pride with which they live their lives would have been heartbreaking.  When you add in a small child narrator and a dad character with health problems, that sadness is a foregone conclusion.  
It's just too heavy for Superman to lift
BUT.  BUT.  BUT.  Thanks to the sad bastardization of the story, there is also a silver lining.  That child narrator also provides a touching amount of innocence and hope to a story that could have just been Requiem For a Dream-depressing.  That little bit of innocence --- and this is not exactly a movie that wears rose-colored goggles --- makes up for a lot of otherwise hopeless moments.  I wouldn't go so far as to call this movie "uplifting," but it doesn't suck the life out of you, despite the subject matter.  This may have been one of the lesser-known Oscar nominees this year, but it was certainly deserving.  The acting was impressive and urgent, the direction was smart, and the story was unlike just about anything else in theaters this year.
No other film mastered the art of Farmstock Fones

The only missteps this movie makes are fairly big ones.  First and foremost, the foreshadowing of the aurochs never pays off.  I get it.  The aurochs symbolize fill in the blank.  They are pointless and clumsy in the big scheme of things.  They could have been completely omitted and affected the emotional and story arcs not at all.  I also would have liked more time in that strip club, because that scene had much more potential than it got to display.  In short, if the aurochs thing actually had a payoff, this movie might have been great.  As it is, this is very good, with a few heavy-handed moments (the aurochs) that would have been better spent elsewhere (at the strip club).  It is still very effective and worth seeing.

This is the song I had stuck in my head while reviewing this movie.  I think it's pretty apt.

1 comment:

  1. Mad Max + On Water = Waterworld

    Everyone knows that, silly. Also, why are there not more Waterworld reviews on this site? One is hardly enough.