Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Jun. 21st
Continuing our coverage of the Los Angeles Film Festival.
This might just turn out to be the summer that “blockbusters” slipped away through a wormhole and the indies rose to fill the void. Moonrise Kingdom is already a hot ticket amongst those who actually like going to the movies, and now Sundance and Cannes darling Beasts of the Southern Wild is entering the fray, announcing the arrival of the next wave of American independent cinema.
Director Behn Zeitlin and his cohorts in the filmmaking collective Court 13 have built a kind of DIY fairytale world in the form of “The Bathtub”, a swampland refuge populated by a society of outcasts and iconoclasts. The Bathtub possesses a DIY aesthetic, as if everything there– from the people to the buildings– had washed up from somewhere else. Everyone here seems a little crazy, folks who put a high value on living life without fetters or much in the way of responsibilities to the outside world. Each other is another matter, but we’ll get to that.
The story is told through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a little girl who lives with her father in a pair of ramshackle trailers-on-stilts somewhere in the wilds of The Bathtub. Hushpuppy’s narration propels the almost stream of consciousness story forward, so that the film takes on the aspect of a bedtime story told by a child. There are ellipses in the story logic, and the characters are drawn with such bold emotional lines there is little question that we are seeing this world through Hushpuppy’s eyes.
The world, it seems, is coming to an end. Though it isn’t articulated bluntly it is clear that global warming has raised up a great storm which is bound to wash away The Bathtub. Many of the residents flee for the mainland, but not all. Not the dedicated amongst those who live in The Bathtub and certainly not Hushpuppy and her daddy. The storm comes and floods The Bathtub, leaving the survivors to cling to each other. All the while not knowing that something even worse might be coming: deadly aurochs which broke free from the ice shelf and are cutting a swath of destruction across the land.
You’re probably clocking to the fact that this is not a straightforward story. Zeitlin and crew are out to build a world and play in it, exploring their creation with the sensibility of musicians. Beasts of the Southern Wild plays out as the filmic counterpart of a concept album. This is, I suppose, how a film by The Decemberists might play out: broad strokes and bold variations on a theme, each scene a new variation on the theme.
If this is an album, then the lead vocals are provided by Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy. Gambling an entire feature film on the strength of child actors is a bold choice for any filmmaker. It paid off for Wes Anderson with Moonrise Kingdom, but Zeitlin hits the jackpot with Wallis. She’s 1.21 gigawatts of power wrapped in the body of a six year old. Even when up against her probably insane father Wink (Dwight Henry), young Wallis commands the screen. If Zeitlin and company are trying to invoke an unfettered spirit through this work they succeeded the second they found first time actor Wallis.
However, I was not left without reservations about the film after viewing it. I came relatively late to Beasts of the Southern Wild, having been unable to catch it in Park City this year. By the time I saw it I’d heard nothing but praise for the strength of the vision, and I wish to the powers that be that didn’t trigger my instinct for finding fault, but it does. Specifically I became concerned with how broadly and wildly the characters were depicted.
The characters within the film skirt the edges of southern archetypes, mixed with caricatures of the mentally ill. Both are sore subjects with me, and I couldn’t entirely pack away my discomfort because I wasn’t entirely sure where Zeitlin’s empathy lay. There’s a clear double entendre with the title “Beasts of the Southern Wild”– referring both to the march of the aurochs and the residents of The Bathtub, but is “Beast” a condemnation or a celebration? Or does it stem from a kind of root-seeking romanticism… and if it does, is that such a terrible thing in and of itself?
In preparation for writing this review, which has been gnawing away at me for a while now, I watched Zeitlin’s short “Glory at Sea”, which establishes the same visual style as used in Beasts, and treads on some of the same thematic territory. Watching that film, which I encourage everyone to do, made it clear to me that Zeitlin and Court 13 see themselves in the residents of The Bathtub. If anything these characters are their ideal archetypes, representing fierce independence and an ability to make something beautiful from what polite society discards. A spirit that lets them transcend their background as Wesleyan college students and become something more.
Romanticism at its best.
Beasts of the Southern Wild played as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival and will open in select theaters Wedenesday, June 27th.