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Beasts of the Southern Wild

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 3, 2012 at 2:30 a.m.

— I don’t really regard these pieces as consumer advice - my feeling is that most people decide what movies they are going to see (or not see) based on a whole lot of factors, and any single critic’s verdict is unimportant. I mostly just try to say something interesting and supportable about the film - whether you should go see the movie in the theater, wait for it on home video or skip it altogether are questions I have insufficient information to answer.

But I will say this about Beasts of the Southern Wild - the recent movie it most reminded me of was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, not for its thematic elements, but in the way it seems meant to be received. Neither film lends itself to easy synopsis,and the best approach to experiencing both is to go in without expectations and allow the light and sound to wash over you.

And, if you are able to make yourself available, Wild might prove to be one of those movies that opens up new avenues of delight for you, in that it shows you a world familiar yet strange, and fresh with extravagant human feeling. It is like some strange hybrid of documentary and fantasy film, a dystopian fable set in the fairly recent past that admits us to the secret life of an improbable but richly imagined society of souls.

It is the story of a little girl, called Hushpuppy (the 6-year old Quvenzhane Wallis, who had never acted before) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, likewise a heretofore nonprofessional actor who delivers an amazing performance), living in the shadow of New Orleans in an insulated, survivalist community called “The Bathtub” as Katrina bears down on the Gulf Coast.

There they abide in a kind of privileged poverty, seemingly invisible to the civilians on the “dry side” of the levee. They live in rickety driftwood structures and ratty houseboats, they scavenge and fish and hide among the plastic litter and the junk. Hushpuppy has her own trailer house, umbilically connected to Wink’s shack until she inadvertently burns it down - the residents of The Bathtub are rich in random flotsam, which they turn to ingenious use.

For the most part, we perceive this world through the eyes of Hushpuppy. We are privy to her inchoate thoughts as she gropes toward an understanding of the strange world in which she is embedded, which she alternately takes in with a child’s matter of-fact acceptance of the only circumstances she has ever known and expounds upon with naive wisdom: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece ... the whole universe will get busted.”

Maybe it’s not as clear to her as it is to us that her father is dying, from heart failure that is simultaneously actual and metaphoric. He’s cruel to and protective of his daughter - he draws a line down the middle of his hovel to delineate their respective spaces. On one side is his stuff that she ought not disturb, but the good thing is he won’t hit her on her side. We understand his harshness in a way that she cannot - he’s trying to prepare her for the inevitable day when the world will drop out from beneath her feet.

There is a kind of insistent poetry to the movie that might strike some as forced - the prehistoric Aurouchs that infiltrate the film, loosed from their suspended animation (like Han Solo in Carbonite) might elicit the same sort of confused twitters as the dinosaurs did in Tree of Life, but writer-director Benh Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar only occasionally make the beasts explicit. Mostly they move through the same gauzy, misty territories as Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things. By the time they arrive in the present, Hushpuppy is able to face them with the imperturbability of a tribal elder. Her soul has grown as ancient as theirs.

One could, I suppose, criticize the film on any number of petty counts - I doubt it is as much fun to live poor and off-the-grid as the entrophy-loving denizens of The Bathtub make it seem. And we don’t get the fish-gut rot flavor that would certainly accompany the glittering dark visuals of the place if it existed in the real world - Wild is, more than anything else, a visual tone poem. To try to impose any orthodox sensibility, much less political correctness, on the film is close to blasphemy - Zeitlin and company have realized something more than the ordinary miracle that is your average well-realized movie.

They’ve made poetry.

Beasts of the Southern Wild 92


: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly


: Benh Zeitlin


: PG-13, for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality

Running time

: 93 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 08/03/2012

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