Film review: ‘Beasts’ Paints Inspiring Vision on Fantasy Canvas

Beasts of the Southern Wild 1We’ve all seen movie posters with such statements as “A celebration of life!” or “A triumph of the human spirit!” emblazoned on them. Such assessments are usually mere hype, but not for the glorious gem that is Beasts of the Southern Wild.

While I’m quoting typically tired marketing lines, here’s another: “If you see just one film this year, see this one.” Yes, I mean it. This is the one.

Dwight Henry as Wink and Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILDWhy? Director/Co-Writer Benh Zeitlin, his script collaborator Lucy Alibar, actors Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry and their colleagues have fashioned an inspiring vision on a fantasy canvas. In the press notes for the picture – which won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d’Or at Cannes – Zeitlin says, “My approach to making movies is about crafting an energy, a feeling, and a way of life that the people that make movies with me can live. It’s about inventing a reality and populating it with the best people I know.” That approach has yielded a wonderful dividend in his first feature-length film.

“Any day now, the fabric of the universe is gonna come undone. The ice caps is ‘gonna melt, the water’s ‘gonna rise, and everything south of the levee’s going under.” The setting is The Bathtub, a sub-levee locale just off the Louisiana coast. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Wallis) is our guide. She’s a tough and resilient resident of the island’s everyone-pitches-in community.

Beasts of the Southern Wild 2She also has determination and imagination. The youngster will need those qualities to safely navigate the daily ordeals of dealing with her rough but loving father, the ailing Wink (Henry), and the twin destructive forces of a terrible storm and large snorting stampeders released from their frozen-since-the-Ice-Age captivity. Soon Hushpuppy will have to fend for herself – but the way she does that will show she’s not just looking out for No. 1.

Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious provided the seed for this film’s story; the production was undertaken by Court 13, a collective of artists, animators, constructionists, editors, musicians and storytellers co-founded by Zeitlin. With such a background it’s hardly surprising that Beasts of the Southern Wild has a very theatrical, other-worldly feel even as it uses realistic flourishes of our planet’s man-made and natural elements.

Beasts of the Southern Wild 3Director of Photography Ben Richardson, the winner of Sundance’s Excellence in Cinematography Award for this film, captures the grit but also the vibrancy of The Bathtub and its inhabitants with 16mm often-hand-held shots. He doesn’t shy away from the brutal elements of the tale, but like the film itself there’s still a powerful aura to the images that stamps Hushpuppy’s triumph over adversity with joy.

The cast was culled from Louisiana locals who come across naturally because they’re not performers flown in to decorate the scenery. Leading the riveting work in front of the camera are Wallis and Henry.

Beasts of the Southern Wild 5Wallis provides a fierce, dynamic, intelligent presence that still conveys the tenderness of the young girl she actually is; Henry – a bakery owner by trade (and Belcourt’s guest this weekend for some post-screening Q&As with co-producer and Nashville native Matthew Parker) – equally commands the screen as a man who struggles to make his daughter self-sufficient while his life ebbs away. The two provide deeply-felt and completely effective characterizations that should be studied by many well-trained professional actors.

Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t ask us to take Hushpuppy and The Bathtub literally. It does ask us to dream of a world where the end of man-made divisions means their ability to corrode the human spirit has ceased. Yes, that’s a fantasy, but it’s one we should be happy to embrace.

Beasts of the Southern Wild 4Beasts of the Southern Wild (www.welcometothebathtub.com) opens today (July 27) in Nashville exclusively at the Belcourt Theatre (www.belcourt.org), 2102 Belcourt Ave. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality, 93 min. Directed by Benh Zeitlin, written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on the stage play Juicy and Delicious by Alibar. Starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry with Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Joseph Brown, Philip Lawrence and Jovan Hathaway.

 

*Photos by Jess Pinkham courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).