Thursday, May 14, 2015

Beasts of the Southern Wild

No Crying Allowed
They're Tryin' To Wash Us Away, They're Tryin' To Wash Us Away

The film year is over half over, but I don't know if I'm going to see a better, more interesting film than Beasts of the Southern Wild, a hard-scrabble thing shot on 16mm with no recognizable members of the cast, but once seen, they're hard to forget.

Filmed in Lousiana, it tells the tale of a community living in the Delta island of "The Bathtub," living off the land and the cast off garbage of civilization (one particularly inspired use is a barge made of the bed of a flatbed truck).

Every house is a hovel, composed of sidings of various materials around a basic house structure, or, if lucky, a mobile home set high up above any high-water mark of a rising tide.

Among the village lives Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, an amazing, sternly concentrated performance) living in her Mother's double-wide, under the care of her birth-father Wink's (Dwight Henry) watchful eye. Hushpuppy keeps an ear out for the changing conditions of the animals in their care, doing a check of heartbeats to make sure everything is beating in their comfortable rhythms.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), making the rounds
Those rhythms would be more erratic if they knew what was coming. When the girl goes down to Miss Bethsheba's (Gina Montana) to learn about stuff ("Y'all better learn how to survive"), she hears tales of melting ice-packs, extinct beasts called aurochs, and the natural ways the world is tied together, that could be pulled apart by disaster.
First sign of trouble is Wink's disappearance. Hushpuppy keeps the tradition of "feed-up time" among the animals and herself, but when Wink comes back, he's in a hospital gown and won't say where he's been. It's the first of many disasters that will upend the community and task the residents of The Bathtub.

Hard to classify what Beasts of the Southern Wild is (but that only makes the viewing of which fascinating). The film is challengingly unspecific in its story-telling—where is The Bathtub? Is the storm that changes everything Katrina or the Apocalypse? Are the shredding ice-caps real or projections? And what of the aurochs, and Hushpuppy's vision of themare they harbingers or merely more of the fabric?)
The questions haunt, as do so many of the images that director Benh Zeitlin and writer Lucy Alibar weave into the skeins of the film. Is it child-drama or fantasy (and what's the difference, really?)? There are no easy answers, nothing that hits the nail, other than the interactions of the characters and their very real sense of community that binds them, holds them fast, and allows them to survive and celebrate, even in the face of rising disaster.

The ambiguity is part of the charm. There's enough specificity, though, to tell a hero's story in the midst of overwhelming odds. And it's a triumph, both in front of and behind the camera.

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