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Anton Sirius Explores The Bathtub With BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD!

 

 
A little girl, Hushpuppy, and her father Wink try to make their way in an environment both fertile and inhospitable. Rules are few: home, family and community have to be defended. Never forget there's something out there that sees you as meat. And above all, no crying. Be strong. Be the man, no matter how big a storm is brewing on the horizon.
 
Beasts of the Southern Wild could only be a debut film. Much like Hushpuppy and Wink, Zeitlin himself seemed to have had few rules when constructing the world around them. The sense of invention and discovery, the rawness of the film, echo similarly energetic debuts centered on children like Laughton's Night of the Hunter and David Gordon Green's George Washington, but Beasts is very much its own beastie. Boundaries aren't so much blurred as ignored. You could call Beasts a fantasy, I suppose, but that description doesn't really do it justice. 'Fantasy film' implies a distinction between fantasy and reality, a threshold that needs to be crossed to bring a character into the magical realm or a seal that needs to be broken to let the magic spill out into our otherwise mundane existence. Instead in Beasts, 'fantasy' and 'reality' co-exist side by side, if not exactly peacefully, and both are equally natural to Hushpuppy. She makes no distinction between them. Her world is simply a big ball of glorious chaos where just about anything can happen - whether it's the glaciers melting and freeing giant Ice Age boars from their slumber, or a dynamite-filled alligator carcass blowing up a levee. Similarly, the film itself doesn't so much blur the distinction between genres as ignore the very concept of 'genre' entirely. You could just as easily call it a disaster film as a fantasy, a road comedy or a coming-of-age drama, but Beasts is too drunk on its own freedom to let itself get tucked away in a convenient box like that. It simply is itself, and you can accept it on its own terms and get swept up in its current or get out of the way.
 
Really, if Beasts put me in mind of anything, it's Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are. There's the same lack of wide-eyed wonder from the kids at the heart of the film no matter what gets thrown at them, and the same externalization of emotional turmoil, but where WTWTA's Max is dealing with the aftermath of a divorce that looms over him like a thundercloud Beasts is fueled by what Hurricane Katrina left in its wake, physically, geographically and spiritually. Katrina is almost an unnamed main character in Beasts, so thoroughly does its memory infuse the movie. Hushpuppy's world is a fragile one, pieced together from things washed up on her shore and left behind by the wind, and it sometimes seems like the only thing holding it together is her desire for any kind of stability. Even her friends and family are flotsam.
 
What Beasts wasn't for me, and seems like it should have been, is emotionally engaging. Here I am throwing around comparisons to a classic like Night of the Hunter or to Where the Wild Things Are (which almost felt autobiographical the first time I saw it), movies which I consider part of my own personal canon, and yet when Beasts was done I just thought it was... good. Cool and trippy, but nothing more. The look and feel of it, the subject matter, make me think Beasts should have hit home for me a lot harder than it did, and I can't quite put my finger on where the distance is coming from. Beasts looks great, it's certainly unique, and it's easy to see why it's been such a critical and festival darling... but it didn't have me leaving the theater thinking I'd seen the next great film about childhood.
 
What the movie done well though, it does very well indeed. Despite its ramshackle aesthetic it never comes across as artificial or forced, and Zeitlin has certainly marked himself as a director to watch out for down the line. Beasts is, like Hushpuppy herself, fierce and immature, proud of who it is and where it came from. And  I'll take a jury-rigged raft like this over a summer sea full of Battleships any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
 
Follow me, and give me audience friends. Cassius, go you onto Twitter. @AntonSirius
Readers Talkback
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  • June 28, 2012, 11:21 p.m. CST

    Was that a review?

    by theBigE

    I'm confused

  • June 29, 2012, 12:17 a.m. CST

    What did I just read?

    by F-18

  • June 29, 2012, 1:08 a.m. CST

    Yes it was a review

    by Anton_Sirius

    If you want nothing but a plot synopsis and a letter grade, try Owen Gleiberman.

  • June 29, 2012, 3:28 a.m. CST

    Oh, It`s a movie. Looked like a book review until I read it.

    by higgledyhiggles

    Looks interesting.

  • This looks incredible! Filmmaker Benh Zeitlin has clearly captured a unique vision, and it’s very exciting to see an indie this original get so much praise, and a summer release date. It has won the Camera d'Or at Cannes and Grand Jury Prize for US Dramatic Competition at Sundance. Definitely seeing it this weekend.

  • June 29, 2012, 8:50 a.m. CST

    I'm not trying to nitpick, anton, but...

    by theBigE

    I don't need "nothing but a plot synopsis and a letter grade," but - a one or two sentence plot synopsis would help before you jump into the review! I know this showed at Sundance, and it appears to take place in New Orleans post Katrina, but that's it. After reading your review, I still have very little idea of the plot synopsis. For example - your second paragraph, you mention the name Zeitlin - is this a character? The director? I guess I'll have to google the name or go read Owen Gleiberman to figure it out. And I'm not trying to be hyper critical, god knows I'm terrible at writing reviews myself - I've only had one review ever published myself on this site - but throw us a bone here!

  • June 29, 2012, 10:51 a.m. CST

    thebige

    by Anton_Sirius

    That was a snafu - I had a header on the review (Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Behn Zeitlin) but it got trimmed off when the piece went up. That IS confusing now... I'll see if I can get it fixed. As for the plot synopsis... two things. One, on a movie like Beasts the plot is almost the least important element of the film. It's far more about tone and emotion and aesthetic, which is partially what I was trying to get across. And two, I just find a plot recap in a review silly and redundant for the most part these days. I might as well just link to the wiki page, y'know? I just don't expect this to be the first, or only, thing you've read about a movie like this. The only really valuable thing I have to contribute to the discussion is my impressions of the movie, so I tend to just cut to the chase. And on something like Beasts, a fairly messy movie in its own right, those impressions are going to be a lot more, well, impressionistic (in the painting sense) than they would be for, say, the new Spidey. I certainly could have taken that approach a bit too far in this case though, bige. Point taken.

  • June 29, 2012, 1:13 p.m. CST

    Thanks anton

    by theBigE

    I understand your approach now more. And quite honestly, I searched out and read a few more reviews for this film this morning, and most of them have little or no more plot synopsis than you supply! This is not a film that plays anywhere with 100 miles of me, but I'll try to check it out on when it reaches another platform. Thanks again for the response.

  • June 29, 2012, 3:04 p.m. CST

    good stuff

    by Anthony Torchia

    most everyone praises it like you do, I'll likely go see it great name Anton Sirius, where'd it come from? and the page bottom still says copyright 2011 :-)

  • June 30, 2012, 5:36 a.m. CST

    I think someone ate my leprechaun

    by Anthony Torchia

    at least, I can't find him :-(