Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Beasts of the Southern Wild"

 4 / 5 

Hushpuppy's world is about to change, but right now, it's perfect.  On the Louisiana bayou, behind the levee that keeps her home separated from the world everyone else calls civilized, Hushpuppy lives in a community filled with fireworks and sparklers, with babies and old men who are left to roam about on their own and with neighbors, family and friends who don't worry too much about anything.

Except for that storm that's coming, literally and figuratively. In the lovely, rambling, poetic, curious, unexpected Beasts of the Southern Wild, it's going to bring more than rain.  Hushpuppy may only be six, but she knows she had better savor these last moments.

In every scene, in every emotion (and there are many, many emotions), the beating heart of these Beasts that matters the most belongs to Quvenzhane' Wallis.  The life she leads is filled with everyone and no one.

There is a drunk, mostly missing, father.  There are the tavern owners and the daughters of those erstwhile business proprietors.

And in The Bathtub, this town that grew up to be what it wanted and didn't listen to anyone else, has become what its handful of residents want it to be: black, white, old, young, Creole, American, living together.

At their core is Hushpupy.  Her father, Wink, can barely fend for himself.  Her Momma just swam away one day.  These are the truths Hushpuppy has learned, as casually as she explores her big world without restrictions.  She even has her own house, even though she's only six.  That's how unconcerned Wink is with being a father.  But he does love this child, everyone does, and she loves them, even if they leave her to fend for herself and make her own food in the most unlikely and dangerous ways.

So, yes, the storm comes, and it's a disaster.  You have seen on the news the fruitless helicopter searches of swamp and bayou looking for disaster victims.  They don't want to leave.  They are not victims.  They will make do -- "Leave us alone!" you hear, but of course, we can't.

Hushpuppy knows for herself who is bad, who is good; this view is fixed and resolute in her mind.  But with that awful, life-altering, unstoppable rain and wind come death and madness, and she sees it all.  Her small, enclosed world cannot continue, she knows, it is threatened by strange beasts, but she senses her tiny place in a universe that thrives on interconnectedness and precision, and she might have a chance to set things right and keep these monsters at bay: both the real ones that take the form of men, and the possibly imaginary ones she has heard about in her unconventional school lessons and who now seem to have sprung to life.

So far, I've only described feeling and moments in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and that's what the movie is, a worthy cinematic poem that is like a small, quiet version of Terence Malick's Tree of Life, without the pomposity and obliqueness.  There is very little forward narrative in Beasts -- Hushpuppy goes to "school," celebrates one of The Bathtub's endless holidays, loses then finds her father, survives the storm, considers what it would mean to get help, watches her world begin to drown under the relentless water, then does what she can to try to save it, along the way meeting a woman who may be her mother, and trying to fend off these attacking monsters.

There are many riveting moments, none as languid and lovely as this: Away from The Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her silent friends make a strange and perilous journey to a floating brothel, where they meet prostitutes who could be their lost mothers and share a moment of intimate peace and human connection so quiet and haunting you want to cry.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is neither a documentary nor a linear narrative film, it's neither a magical-realism fantasy nor a heart-tugging drama.  It's a memorable, visually magnificent love letter to America, one that looks way past politics, celebrity and economics to open a wide, curious window into the way some Americans live, what they believe, and how their indomitable spirit defines them.

Beasts of the Southern Wild works its magic not through storytelling, not through acting, not through cinematography or music -- but by combining them all, like a multi-media art installation, to work up complex emotions that most people won't be quite sure what to do with.  It needs to work on you for a few days.  Afterward, when you think about it, you'll remember particular moments and feelings, and you'll remember that stunning, one-of-a-kind central performance by Quvenzhane' Wallis, whose Hushpuppy is unlike anyone you've ever met.

Viewed at ArcLight Hollywood - June 29, 2012

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