Thursday, February 07, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beast of the Southern Wild is the Cinderella movie of the 2013 Oscar season, stunning critics and fans alike by getting four Academy Award nominations, in the most prominent categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. The star of the film has the impossible name of Quvenzhané Wallis and at age 9 she has become the youngest person ever nominated in the Best Actress category.

Wallis plays Hushpuppy, the daughter of Wink (played by Dwight Henry) who both live in decrepit squalor in a low-lying land they call "the Bathtub," a section of the world cut off from the rest of society (or Louisiana!) by a levee.

The Other Half and I saw the film when it opened in Washington, D.C. for a secondary run at the E Street Landmark Cinemas while he was in town for the second inauguration of Barack Obama.

It was good to see the film on the big screen and I did not know much about the film except that it starred a very young African-American girl who must have given an amazing performance because it got Oscar-nominated. A lot of the glowing reviews mentioned how "creative," "original"and "magical" but what they do not really describe is how experimental a film it is. First-time director Zeitlin defies numerous standard movie conventions (like centering his film around a juvenile child of color, eschewing dialogue and narrative flow and casting "real-looking" people in every role). Although I suppose he must be commended for making a film for under $2 million that has been able to garner such visceral reactions from such a wide swath of critics.

My immediate reaction among seeing the film was mostly disbelief. I couldn't believe that there were literally hundreds of Academy members who felt that Wallis gave one of the best acting performances of the year. It is absolutely not clear to me, what she is doing is actually acting per se. First off, there is not that much dialogue in the film that she has to say while on camera. Most of what she says is presented as dreamy, mystical voice-over. (Note, I am not saying that voice-acting is not acting, but no actor in an an animated film has ever been nominated for their voice-over performance, and there's a reason for that.)

Secondly, even though the story is presented as an urban(?) fantasy it is still very difficult to watch. Basically, Wallis is running around the screen in frankly dangerous surroundings filled with trash and farm animals, with almost no adult supervision, clearly representing the titular Beast. However, in my eyes, Hushpuppy runs dangerously close to representing a "pickaninny" character. One of the first scenes in the film is of an entire chicken being dropped on a grill and then presented to Hushpuppy to eat, after a bell is rung to let her know that it is "time to feed."

The plot is mainly centered around Hushpuppy (and the audience) discovering that her father has what looks like a terminal illness and how the two of them deal with that fact and the effects of extreme weather changes (melting of the polar ice caps) which release dangerous looking Beasts (called "Aurochs") into the world and flood the Bathtub, displacing the destitute people from their already desperate living situations.

The only good thing that I can say about the movie is that it is thankfully short. The words I would use to describe it are "confusing," "disappointing" and "strange."

TitleBeast of the Southern Wild.
Director: Benh Zeitlin.
Running Time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language, and brief sensuality.
Release Date: June 27, 2012.
Viewing Date: January 20, 2013.

Writing: C.
Acting: C.
Visuals: B+.
Impact: B-.

Overall Grade: B-/C+ (2.50/4.0).

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