Friday, September 14, 2012

'Beasts' offers rare exploration of child's view on life

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a wonderfully odd and oddly wonderful film. This is a rare film that captures a child's perspective and their sense of wonder and awe of the world.

The film is set in the Bathtub, the "wet side" of a levee in an unspecified part of the Southern delta. A ramshackle community chooses to live here in spite of an ever present threat of flooding of what little land they have. The people here live a simple, nearly primitive life. To the outside world their existence would seem like living in squalor, but to them it is the only way to live.

We see all this through the eyes of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl who is fascinated by the life and death of animals. She constantly picks up small animals to listen to their heartbeat. In addition, she is imagining the ice caps melting and letting loose prehistoric beasts.

Hushpuppy's father Wink (Dwight Henry) is the sort of leader of the community. Unfortunately, his health is failing and he isn't sure how to deal with this as a man or father. Hushpuppy's mother is out of the picture, but she still "talks" to her mother represented by an old basketball jersey.

Despite a setting that is often decrypt and desolate, the film has a certain magic quality. Much of that can be attribute to a wonderful horn-heavy score by director Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer that is equal parts sweet, majestic and uplifting. The score helps to make the film almost fantastic, which is appropriate given it is from Hushpuppy's youthful point of view.

Director Zeitlin chooses a handheld camera approach, a technique that has become increasingly overused in action films often resulting in confusing, incoherent sequences. Here though the approach is effective and gives the film a documentary-like feeling as if we are roaming around the Bathtub with Hushpuppy.

The film, unlike a lot of films that rely heavily on handheld camera work, is quite beautiful to behold. Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson find simple, lasting compositions.

Wallis gives a rather extraordinary performance, continuing this summer's trend of great child performances as represented in "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Odd Life of Timothy Green." She is asked to carry much of the film and provide it with voiceover narration and she ably does that.

Much of the film requires Wallis to silently react to the world around her and she always seems present and active in these moments. She has a striking, natural screen presence. She is sweet and cute, but never too precious.

Henry is also strong as Wink. He is hot tempered and often doesn't really know how to deal with raising a daughter on his own. He is loving, but only knows how to show it by teaching his daughter how to be a man. When Wink allows himself to finally show some tenderness as when he lets Hushpuppy sleep on his chest it is a powerful and touching moment.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" isn't a complex film in terms of its plotting. In fact, very little happens in terms of actual events. It is about a girl's journey to find courage and understand her world. Unlike many such tales, Hushpuppy's search isn't heavy with its message or morals. It is just one girl's story simply told with grace and beauty.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is playing at the Majestic Theater at the Conway Cafe in Conway Village.

No comments: