Thursday, July 26, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

After "Batman 3", I had to be sure that the next movie I saw in theaters was something completely different.  I couldn't go out and see some huge action Blockbuster because no matter what it was, it would just pale miserably in comparison to "The Dark Knight Rises".  I didn't really have much hope for the remake of "Total Recall", since its pointless and they killed all the great 80s action charm, but it really will not stand any chance at all if it has to follow up the biggest movie of the year.  In that view, I went to see a completely different kind of movie:  a small Indie Neorealist film about poor people living on America's contracting frontier.  And since its a nice serious drama, I guess I need to shed the Batman fanboy persona and take on the academic one.  *Changes Hats*

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the first film directed by Benh Zeitlin, a first-time director, but probably not a last-time director.  His film has already made a huge splash amongst the stuffy elites of film criticism, even getting a Camera de'Or (the Best film made by a newbie director) at the Cannes Film Festival*, the Mecca of film academia, and it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.  Interestingly, "Beasts" was filmed entirely without professional actors, instead using first-time people found locally in New Orleans, but it also stars Quvenzhan√© Wallis, a - then - five-year-old actress.  Usually working with a little kid of any age is a huge gamble for your movie, because unless you can get that kid to stop being cute and give the performance you need, your whole movie will just collapse.  Remember "Phantom Menace"?  But Quvenzhan√© Wallis is not just an aversion to that rule, she is the singular best thing about this movie.  If "Beasts of the Southern Wild" goes to the Oscars, it will be because of her more than anybody else.  She's that remarkable.

That's not to say the rest of the movie is unremarkable, its a filthy, grungy movie starring the poorest people in all of America.  These are people who live beyond the edge, sitting in the Louisiana bayous with the land slipping away below their feet.  Everything they have is falling into the sea, and while the rest of the world is already moved on, their holding onto everything they've ever known, but also living in abject, frightening poverty.  However, Benh Zeitlin isn't a crusading evangelist out to spread the word to save these people, his use of the camera seems to admire them.  He's not calling us to action, he's praising a culture that is literally drowning under the moving tides of the world.  Despite all their ignorance and lack of a future, they're still walking bravely into whatever life will bring them.  Zeitlin doesn't pity them, he admires them, and this is why "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a very interesting movie.

Of course, being an interesting drama movie that is largely unlike any previous film, you can't find "Beasts of the Southern Wild" in regular theaters.  You have to travel all the way to some Arthouse theater**, because the nearest one most likely is only filming loud blockbusters and loud comedies and loud children's movies.  Yeah, that's only three movies, but they're also showing the 3D versions of those movies.  There seems to be far less selection at the movies than ever, is it just me?  What ever happened to mature dramas and more intelligent films?  Were they cut out of the mainsteam of American culture forever to make room for endless stupid bullshit?

Anyway, back on topic.

I called "Beasts of the Southern Wild" a "neorealist" film in the intro, and I guess I should explain what that means.  Back in the 30s and 40s, Italy was deluged by terribly formulaic comedies that glamorized the lives of wealthy bourgeoisie people of wholesome stock values.  All of this perfectly fit the viewpoint of dictator Benito Mussolini who wanted a nation of well-behaved subjects, but didn't really inspire very much artistic meaning.  So once Mussolini fell from power, experimental Italian filmmakers like Roberto Rosselini went to their local streets while the bombs were still falling, gathered up local people to play in their story, and filmed "Rome, Open City" about the Nazi German occupation that had just ended.  Italian Neorealism was a genre designed to depict Italian life exactly as it was following the defeat of Fascism in WWII, a chaotic time of great poverty and confusion about the future.  So when Vittorio de Sica made "Bicycle Thieves", he made his focus the story of a man struggling to hold onto his job in Rome following the theft of his bicycle, and the miserable day that follows.  "Beasts of the Southern Wild" really reminds me of the style of those old Italian movies, since its filmed on-location, using local actors, and tries to tell a story about life as it is.

You would assume that since the United States is a global superpower with more wealth than God that there would be no place for Neorealist filmmaking within our Empire, however this is not the case.  Yeah, most of us here get to experience the benefits of a global civilization, there are hidden places where modernity's grasp simply has not made it.  "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the story about people who survive right on the edge of our world.  The main characters, Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, live in our trash.  Wink fishes in a boat made from the bed of a pick-up truck.  They live in grungy filthy trailers crudely elevated above the ground.  There's no power, no government, no running water, no fuel, and only the slightest touches of the outside world.  Their community is known as "The Bathtub", which exists just beyond the Mississippi River levies, which acts as a wall separating this isolated community of independent bumpkins from our state of Louisiana.  The only school is the local medicine woman telling stories from her tatooes, the only entertainment is alcohol and the many excuses to drink alcohol.  But unlike the Italian Neorealism which wallowed in the miseries of a defeated nation, American Neorealism stars proud people mostly satisfied with their situation.  They're backwards, they're coarse, they're hopeless, but they're still fiercely independent and refuse to go anywhere despite the rising tides.  Benh Zeitlin seems to love these people, and by the end of the movie, you love them too.

Hushpuppy is a small child being raised only by her father, Wink.  Wink is a very sick man, dying of some unknown blood disease, and he's more than a little crazy.  He's loud, he's quick to anger, he drinks a lot, he's got terrible teeth, but he's still a strong personality that's raising Hushpuppy the only way he knows how:  teaching her to fend for herself and not to take shit from anybody.  But its Hushpuppy who is the star of the show.  She's got a child's mind, so she assumes that everything that goes wrong during the course of the movie is somehow her own fault, and even imagines a group of monsters that travel up from the Arctic to eat her (more on that in a bit), but she also acts like a strong character in her own right.

Quvenzhan√© Wallis has such a fierceness to her, its shocking to see out of somebody so young.  Even grizzled action movie stars with muscles several sizes too large to be of any practical use would have to envy the intensity that comes out of her little eyes.  I've read that it took the director nine months to find the perfect star, and every month of casting was definitely worth it, because with anybody even with a fraction of less power, and this movie would have crashed and burned.  But no, she is amazing.

Now I mentioned monsters,  yeah, there are some fantasy elements to this movie.  Honestly I'm not entirely sure why they're here, but its something you have to deal with.  Hushpuppy is told about Aurochs, these bestial giant boars that used to eat "cavebabies" back before the Ice Age, when they were frozen forever.  So when a hurricane comes and floods the Bathtub, Hushpuppy imagines that the Aurochs have escaped and are rampaging their way across the world to find her.  Then they actually appear, and she confronts them.  I'm not sure if these creatures actually exist, or why they're here, or what.  But then again, all movies need an element of weirdness, I say.  If you fully understand every element, its just an excuse to eat popcorn.

I think they added the Aurochs just to convince me to go see this.  Because this isn't usually my kind of movie.  I hear "poor people", "South", "little girl growing up", and I immediately assume its some dull Faulkner novel or something and move on with my life.  They must have added the fantasy elements to get me into the theater.  Thanks for thinking of me, Zeitlin.

My one complaint:  the camera never stops shaking.  I understand this was done to give the movie a cheaper, more "on the spot" kind of feel.  And I can even make up a symbolic reason for it:  the entire world is so badly pieced together out of junk and everything is washing away, even the camera is shaking.  But its annoying, honestly.

So, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is like the dirty Southern answer to the high quirky Nothernness of "Moonrise Kingdom".  If I had to pick one or the other, I'd take "Southern Wild" if just because the performances are so much more stunning in this one, and this movie is really like nothing else that's out in theaters right now.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure who I'm talking to right now, because whenever I start talking about obscure arty film nobody ever comments.  Oh well.  "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is not Batman, and that's its greatest fault.  But for what it is, its excellent.  A beautiful little movie.

* The highest award, the Palme d'Or, went to some French film called "Love" about a paralyzed lady who learned... stuff, I guess, which I will not be reviewing because its totally not my thing.

** This was the same theater I saw "Another Earth" in.  And that movie fucking sucks.


  1. Aurochs were the ancestors of modern cattle before they were domesticated. The species went extinct in the 1600s. Aurochs is actually the singular of the word, oddly enough.

    On an unrelated note, is your Durarara!! review coming soon? I've been wanting to see what you think of it.

    1. I keep telling myself I'll finish the show today, then the day ends, and I never quite make it. Within a week, I'm sure.

  2. I saw the trailer for this at Dendy Opera Quays (a somewhat artsy theatre - though it's also showing The Dark Knight Rises, so make of that what you will). I thought it looked interesting, but I unfortunately forgot the name of it until I read your review. Thanks for reminding me.