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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 13 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 28
Visually audacious Beasts wildly uneven
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Visually audacious Beasts wildly uneven

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a six-year-old girl who lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub. He is sick, probably dying, and intent on teaching her how to live and thrive without him. She becomes convinced she can somehow find the mother who abandoned them years ago, certain if she does so she'll garner some insight into how to help her daddy in his time of need.

There's a lot more to Sundance and Cannes Film Festival favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild - I'm just not entirely sure how to describe it. The movie plays like myth, moves like fable, and is consumed with showcasing visuals utterly unique in and of themselves. It plays to the deepest, most base human emotions, delivering a family saga of a father and his daughter trying to survive in the bleakest of circumstances and the most barren of locations.

It's hypnotic, that's a certainty. Director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, working alongside fellow newcomer and scribe Lucy Alibar, deliver as unique a cinematic experience as anything 2012 has offered up so far. But for all its floridly kinetic panache, for all its deeply felt originality, the movie as a whole had my scratching my head wondering what all the fuss has been about. Hushpuppy's story was lost on me, her saga of personal triumph in the midst of massive poverty not one I could ever fully embrace or get behind.

There are plenty of 'wows' here, at least from a technical standpoint. Set somewhere in the middle of the Louisiana delta, in a flooded badland cut off from the rest of the world thanks to massive levies, and on the verge of disappearing under the water for good, Zeitlin manages to unearth sights that boggled my mind. He and cinematographer Ben Richardson are working on another level, capturing images that held me breathless. The camera moves with unhurried grace, and whether pulling back to showcase this barren waterlogged landscape in full or zooming in to examine every nuance of Wallis' angelic face, it's almost as if the duo can do no wrong as far as their compositions are concerned.

But what, ultimately, is the point of it all? What is it that Zeitlin and Alibar wanted me to take away from all this sturm und drang? This is the kind of movie that kept me waiting patiently for that signature moment - that one sequence that would bring all the others into some sort of emotionally symmetrical line. I kept waiting and wanting, dying to explore this world in greater detail and know more about why Wink and Hushpuppy were so intent on remaining in the Bathtub.

There were times when I sort of got an idea of what the filmmakers were going for, most notably a stunning sequence inside a rundown restaurant/brothel in the middle of nowhere. Hushpuppy and a few of her fellow pint-sized compatriots make their way there in search of answers and discover a serenity for both themselves and for the women within that's intimate and soulful. While no answers are given, while nothing is resolved, the strength of spirit this unexpected meeting brings about inside our heroine feels entirely genuine, achieving an ethereal universality.

In the end, though, this saga of finding beauty in poverty, of discovering inner strength in the midst of the most dire of circumstances, left me somewhat exasperated, wanting so much more than the movie apparently was willing to give. The music swells, the visuals become more indulgent, and the hoped for one-on-one meeting between diminutive starlet and prehistoric beast becomes a reality, but none of this ended up meaning anything as far as I could tell. I was left cold, more appreciative of the technical showmanship required to bring it all off and the intense vitality of the performances then I was toward anything more substantive.

I somewhat get all the euphoria directed this film's way. It's different and unique, set inside a landscape unlike any other we've seen in what feels like eons. It's as if Zeitlin has channeled The Road Warrior, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Walkabout, moving the action to an American locale but retaining the otherworldly, surreal dreamscape inherent in those Australian classics.

All of which is fine and dandy, but I wanted more. There is no closure to Beasts of the Southern Wild, nothing to hold on to that was satisfying. I was impressed by this debut and loved the fire and the passion of Zeitlin and Alibar in bringing it to life. But this wasn't enough. The emotional center of the saga seemed just as bewildering and vaporous by the end as it was at the beginning, and my journey into the Bathtub left me feeling anything but clean.

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