Combustible Celluloid
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With: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Marilyn Barbarin, Kaliana Brower, Nicholas Clark, Henry D. Coleman, Levy Easterly, Philip B. Lawrence
Written by: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality
Running Time: 91
Date: 01/20/2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Stormy Weather

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Beasts of the Southern Wild comes out of the film festival circuit with the kind of hype that filmmakers only dream of. The New York Times reported that it was the best movie to play at Sundance in two decades.

It's certainly not the best movie, but it's one of the most marketable. It has many traditional aspects that critics love, and will probably ride a wave of critical hype -- and therefore dutiful audience appreciation -- to a few Oscar nominations.

Set in the fictional section of New Orleans called "the Bathtub," the movie focuses on six year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). She makes a strikingly lovely centerpiece icon with her big head of hair and her little rubber rain boots. She narrates the tale in a quasi-Malickian tone, using her imagination for embellishment, such as conjuring up conversations with her dead mother.

Hushpuppy's father Wink (Dwight Henry) gives her the "tough love" treatment, as if to prepare her for the end of the world. At one point, he simply disappears. When he returns he wears a hospital gown and wristband. (He has "movie sickness," the only symptom of which is a lethal cough.) Then the rains come, and the entire town floods. Wink and a few stubborn residents come together to help each other survive. (The movie has some wonderful cooking sequences.)

Finally, in the last section, Hushpuppy goes on a kind of spiritual odyssey that is easily the best part of the film. She meets a ship's captain who eats nothing but chicken biscuits, and says they make him feel "cohesive." Hushpuppy responds that she'd like that, too. In the end, several giant "beasts" make their way to Bathtub, and straight to Hushpuppy. The movie itself isn't clear if they're a dream, or what they represent, but the press materials suggest that they are ancient creatures freed from melting glaciers by global warming.

So what's the problem, then? To start, the movie opens on Hushpuppy exploring young life around her, looking at baby birds and animals and cradling them in her hands. This should be an extraordinarily delicate moment, but first-time director Benh Zeitlin films it with a clumsy hand-held camera, now a standard-issue visual staple of "independent" movies. The tiny life sits in Hushpuppy's tiny hand, and the camera jerks wildly all over the scene, ruining the mood.

If Zeitlin was trying for a Malicky mood here, then it only goes to prove why Malick's smooth, carefully composed shots work better than lurching hand-held camerawork, which continually draws attention to itself rather than the images.

Another pet peeve: any movie set in New Orleans these days has something to say about Hurricane Katrina, and all the political and climate-related politics associated with it. To the movie's credit, it doesn't actually mention "George W. Bush" or "climate crisis," but it does show images of white city people trying to forcibly evacuate the residents of Bathtub, who wish to stay. The movie takes a side on this issue, whether or not it wants to admit it.

Then there is the theme of the dying father, which seems played for pathos, given the child's point of view. The movie only suggests, rather than dealing with, the father's sickness, which seems like an easy way to get the needed drama without really facing the issue.

Only the movie's last stretch manages to get to the place the movie seems to want to go: a weird balance between imagination and reality. If the movie wants nothing more than to create and sustain a mood, it fails in this until this last reel. The bulk of it, with its hand-held "realism" and the mawkish plot devices, is far too calculated. I envy those critics that saw something "unusual" and "magical" or even downright "weird" in this movie. For me, it was all too ordinary. (If you're looking for something unique, set in Louisiana, about a little girl, and that employs "magical realism," may I recommend Eve's Bayou instead?)

However, I have nothing bad to say about the performances of Ms. Wallis and Mr. Henry, who, with no training, have provided the movie with its greatest strength: their faces and their spirits.

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