Monday, July 9, 2012

All the little pieces - 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' review

The first image of director Benh Zeitlin's premiere feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is of a six-year old girl holding a chick and arranging a mound of dirt on which to place it. It's an image shot from a distance, almost out of focus, gently rocking with a handheld motion. The image itself is as precarious as this moment of unfiltered childhood exploration.

Beasts has already emerged as one of the year's most lauded efforts, exploding out of nowhere at Sundance to win prizes there, at Cannes, and -- let's face it -- some hyperbolic reviews from all corners of the U.S. And to its credit, there is something almost intangible about the film, a kind of primitivism that transcends its almost inherent naivete and its at-times technical sloppiness. It yearns to make the kind of statement about the human condition only great art can make, to explore our connections with communities of nature, people, places, and things utterly cosmic -- and it attempts this without (often) dawdling into on-the-nose sentiment.

To be honest, I still don't really know how I feel about Beasts of the Southern Wild. On the one hand, I recognize it as something of an accomplishment and appreciate its uniqueness and its poignancy. On the other, I still take issue with its aesthetic, which is laborious to a fault, relying far too often on muddy and overly handheld compositions that insist on their destabilization, turning the world into a dizzy conundrum. Perhaps that's the point. Regardless, Beasts is worth exploring, and it may be one of American independent cinema's most singularly striking works in some time.

Our young child from the opening shot is Hushpuppy, a ferocious little creature who lives with her borderline-abusive-yet-nevertheless-loving-and-protective father in rundown trailers in a tiny little community called The Bathtub. Located south of the Louisiana levees, estranged in their own island of existence, the residents of the Bathtub have an entirely different kind of ideology and way of seeing the world. What we might see as trash, they see as the essence of living. Life is to be celebrated, Hushpuppy says in so many words, and celebrate they do until a hurricane (presumably Katrina) undoes the community, turning their story into one of bravery and survival.

Beasts is conceived less as a narrative journey than as a wholly sensorial affair. It is one of the most phenomenological films I have ever seen, in that Hushpuppy -- and the visual and aural apparatuses that constitute the cinema -- is obsessed with seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting the world around her. A groan-inducing comparison, perhaps, but there are moments where she listens to nature or stares intently at a piece of food that recall the best moments of Terrence Malick -- Zeitlin engages fully with how our bodies process the world around us, and turns the cinema into an exploratory vessel, a sensorium of mythological proportions.

Actress Quvenzhane Wallis, who was only six at the time the film was shot, is utterly breathtaking as Hushpuppy. In soft voiceovers, she talks of how the whole universe is full of small parts that make up a big part, of how nature of full of things "feedin' and squishin'," of how her Momma "swam away," and she's constantly looking to the water in hopes of summoning her back. The whole thing threatens to teeter into cosmic absurdity by placing these grand thoughts of individual relevance into the head of a child, but somehow Zeitlin and his co-screenwriter, Lucy Alibar, keep this element restrained by making her imagination and her worldview so astutely realized. Wallis is joined onscreen by a whole assortment of fabulous non-professional actors, not the least of which is Dwight Henry, who plays her father with such sincere passion it's hard to believe he's not this man.

And what of those "Beasts" the title so mysteriously alludes to? They may be the Aurochs, pre-historic beasts Hushpuppy imagines have been thawed from an icy prison and who now trek across the world to Louisiana (by the way -- this movie was filmed on a shoestring budget, and the Aurochs are some of the most mesmerizing effects I've seen in any movie all year). The "Beasts" may be the people of the Bathtub, whom Hushpuppy constantly paints as "animals" in the positive sense of the word, in that they divorce themselves from modern society and live as much as they can in nature.

There is much about Beasts of the Southern Wild that is challenging -- it has a discernible and relatively simple narrative structure, but it feels largely secondary to its exploration of tones and spaces. In its world of magical realism, it has one eye turned toward the anthropological, toward exploring Hushpuppy and her community; it has the other turned squarely toward the mythological and the fantastical, spinning its little web of Americana into something seemingly profound about who we are and the places we come from. It takes a moment of our recent past -- Hurricane Katrina -- and, avoiding all the usual depictions of New Orleans, offers a version of the South that spits in the face of tragedy and pity. Just take a listen to the score, a beautiful blend of folk and what I can only describe as an "epic" orchestral arrangement -- nowhere better does the dialectic of the film come into focus, this tension between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

It may ultimately be difficult to decipher what the film is telling us. This may be the point -- its insistence on a lack of meaning asks us to inscribe our own, furthering emphasizing that our experience is more important than the narrative's lessons -- but even if it ends with its characters still searching for something that might not be readily apparent, so be it. Beasts of the Southern Wild is so intent on complicating our relationship with the screen, so full of desire for us to engage with the images and sounds on a personal level, that it almost doesn't matter where the film ends up, so long as we can still feel it.

If Beasts falters in any regard, it's in its visual aesthetic, which is so preoccupied with looking dirty and handheld, that at times it feels almost as if it's insisting on this, as if it is afraid of letting the camera sit still and merely observe. Granted, cinematographer Ben Richardson -- boldly shooting on 16mm -- captures some absolutely breathtaking images of nature and some truly striking and perhaps iconic framings, but that doesn't stop the form from breaking with the content. Too often, it feels like a technical misstep more than a curious means of using the camera, distracting us from Hushpuppy and her father.

Still, Beasts of the Southern Wild has some kind of unstoppable force brewing inside it. Made with the kind of passion and energy that feels largely extinct from Hollywood's major players, Beasts feels like it too has thawed from the ice and emerged with all the surprising force of its tiny-but-strong protagonist to catch us completely off-guard. Despite its hiccups, its bumps, and its occasional frustrating moment, this is not a movie to see. It is a movie to experience, with an open optimism of everything that experience can offer.

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