Monday, November 26, 2012

MOVIE OF THE WEEK/OSCAR WATCH: Beasts of the Southern Wild


Throughout this year, people have been writing articles about the death of the cinema, but when I watch independent films like "Beasts of the Southern Wild" I know this can't be true. This poetic debut feature by young director Benh Zeitlin proves that there are still creative, unique stories to be told by filmmakers willing to tell them. In "Beasts of the Southern Wild" the plot tells the story of Hushpuppy (played by Quevenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) as they persevere through an impending flood and Wink's fading health. They live in a decaying bayou community called The Bathtub, which is obviously molded off the lives of Hurricane Katrina victims.
Watching this film is a true visceral experience. You really feel the earthiness of the setting, with animals, insects, plants and humans all coexisting seamlessly. Now, this description may sound like some glorious nature documentary, but it is far from that. This place is muddy, dirty and greasy with unsafe housing and generally unsanitary conditions. You can practically smell the filth. In the hands of other filmmakers, this would come across as "poverty porn", but Zeitlin incredibly manages to find a balance between romanticizing the situation while still portraying the hardship.
As we all know, there were a lot of people who refused to leave despite the threat of destruction. This forms the basis of the film's many themes. For me, the most powerful ideas were those of home and fear. Looking back on the disastrous effects of Katrina, we pity those who made the illogical decision to stay put. However, the film beautifully illustrates the philosophies of these people, especially through the mind of Wink. The true meaning of "home" is a place where you are most comfortable and find a sense of community. In The Bathtub, comfort comes from culture and tradition. These aspects defy our typical measures of "standard of living", as it ignores our aspirations for the big house, fancy car, nice clothes and gourmet food. For these people, home represents eating and drinking(often heavily) what's available, their neighbours and basically their general way of living. As frustrating as it is to watch them stand firm in such precarious living situations, the film makes you understand their decision.
One of the most striking things for me was the concept of fear. Their refusal to evacuate is not only due to a feeling of contentment and security, but also largely attributed to fear of the unknown. Leaving The Bathtub means that they will have to fit in with "the others", the people who live in a society that seems alien to their own. When you look at Wink's simple life and attitude, it's becomes clear that there is an underlying fear of the loss of identity and sense of place. As a result, Wink is determined to teach his young daughter how to survive when he is gone. He uses tough love, communicating with her as if she were a strapping young lad. This precocious little girl can handle it though, exuding immense courage and aptitude. Her personal adventure is the heart and soul of the story and Quvenzhané Wallis carries it well.
Even while you may feel sorry for these people, it's impossible to deny their considerable bravery through their struggles. There is a line in the film that best describes their spirit - "it wasn't no time to sit around crying like a bunch of pussies". Usually in films like these, there is a considerable period of misery and sadness following a catastrophe. However, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" admirably ditches this cliché and celebrates the strength of the human spirit. As the plot unfolds, this proves to be a powerful notion that reminds you of the value of simply being alive.

Ever since it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, this film has been building some considerable Oscar buzz. It's certainly worthy of attention, but it will have to fight to make it in this high-quality year of film. The main awards pull of this film is undoubtedly Quvenzhané Wallis. Many people believe that her performance is only a function of the director's manipulation, but I call bullshit. In my opinion, this girl has some serious talent. She gives a fearless performance of great poise, while still maintaining the timidity of childhood. There are so many subtle, quiet moments that illustrate how accomplished her performance is. In the absence of dialogue or action, she remains focused and intense while other child actors would seem listless. Her co-star and fellow untrained actor Dwight Henry is also great, but in my opinion she acts circles around him. If the Academy is willing to accept her as a "real actor", Quvenzhané Wallis should definitely receive a Best Actress nomination. Although the film itself seems to be falling out of the spotlight, I think it could also still sneak a nod for Best Picture. Outside of these 2 categories though, I doubt it will garner enough support. However, I am sure Zeitlin and Fox Searchlight will be glad for any recognition for this "little film that could".
For my final assessment of the film, I debated whether I should give it a perfect score. In general, the film is as scrappy as its environment. The script and music(though very beautiful) does get a bit repetitive and reveals Zeitlin's inexperience. However, the film shines on its breathtaking visual storytelling and the story is incredibly compelling. To me, these strengths far outweigh it's weaknesses, so eventually I gave in and awarded it my full-hearted stamp of approval (a 5-star rating).

8 comments:

  1. Very good review. I agree with you about actress Quvenzhane and beleieve that she will garner a nomination, but sadly she'll be put into the suppourting role when really she should be getting one for the lead.

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    1. Nah, I think she'll stay in lead. All the Oscar pundits think so and Fox Searchlight is campaigning her in that category. Her role will be treated like Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider. When Hailee got put in supporting for True Grit, it was because she was sharing the film with big stars. In this case, it's really Wallis' film.

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  2. This definitely is the little film that could, and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves when the time comes. It's impressive knowing that Wallis and Henry have absolutely no acting experience too. They're definitely giving the experienced actors in Hollywood a run for their money with this film!

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    1. Definitely some impressive performances.

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  3. Good review. It's a great film, I can't argue against that, but it made me want to throw up a good couple of times. Maybe I'm not a huge-lover of gritty-as-dirt films, but this one just took me out of the picture a couple of times due to it obviously wanting to gross me out. Not the film's fault, maybe it's just a personal-pet peeve of mine.

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    1. I definitely understand that. This movie made me want to take a shower!

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  4. well said. Loved the grimy setting of the film and the chemistry of the Bathtub residents were great. The beasts kinda felt displaced in the story but overall a nice movie. #WallisForOscar

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  5. The aurochs fit in with the fantasty elements of the story, so I was fine with them. Would love to see Wallis get an Oscar nomination.

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