Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Beasts of the Southern Wild

Reviews - Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Reviewed By John Stakes

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Daily Mail critic Christopher Tookey recently described last Sunday's made on a relative shoestring ($1.3M) feature film debut by director/screenwriter Benh Zeitlin as "absolutely dreadful but will appeal to the prejudices of anyone who found Terrence Malik's 'Tree of Life' a timeless masterpiece"!

This reviewer thoroughly enjoyed most of Malik's film, so what to make of "Beasts of the Southern Wild"? It is certainly different, if not enigmatic, and impossible to classify. It's a sort of child's-eye semi-gothic fantasy set in a water-world of grim reality. Banned by the US Screen Actors' Guild for the casting of untrained non-professionals (Zeitlin recruited his cast from the local bayou community in Montegut Louisiana), "Beasts" has gone on to attract world-wide interest.

Keswick audiences will chime with the dilemma faced by a Louisiana in-shore(?) small island community appropriately termed "the Bathtub" as they are under constant threat from rising sea-water after heavy rain: their only protection comes from a levee designed it seemed more to keep flood waters from penetrating the city beyond (New Orleans?) than to protect the locals. The film centres on the delightfully named Hushpuppy, a spunky attitudinal six years old girl in tune with the natural world but struggling over her difficult relationship with her hot-tempered father Wink following the departure of her mother: they occupy separate homes.

Heavy rains indeed lead to flooding which wreaks its inevitable havoc on the community and is followed by another environmental disaster as the trees and crops cannot withstand the impact of salt water. The inhabitants are forcibly evacuated to a shelter home. If these catastrophes are not enough Wink's health begins to fail.

To help her make some sense of her waterlogged world and come to terms with it Hushpuppy deploys two mechanisms: first to try to find her mother, and secondly to face up to her demons which are conjured up from some prehistoric arctic animals (aurochs) she was taught about in class by her teacher Bathsheba. The search for her mother (if only in her mind) takes her to a floating brothel where she finds a waitress on board whom she believes might be her mother though neither recognises the other. Wink dies. Hushpuppy realises she must return to the only reference point left in her life, her Bathtub home, to which the other inhabitants have already decided to return, and the film concludes with her lighting her father's funeral pyre as the locals walk the levee.

As the six year old Hushpuppy, newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis was astonishing. Like her co-star father and baker Dwight Henry she had no previous acting experience and was simply plucked from the local community. Apparently Wallis read particularly well for her age and could scream and burp on demand! She was as completely at home in front of the camera as she was in the Bathtub. Her raw edges became part of her character, and Zeitlin coaxed a compelling and ultimately moving performance from this waif.

The film seemed to be aware of its own incongruity and idiosyncrasy and revelled in it. Somewhat overambitious for its meagre budget it was nevertheless bursting with originality. Its ambiguity was deliberate, a device to better enable us to see the world (particularly the alien outside world to which she was removed) through Hushpuppy's eyes, but a sometimes disorientating exposition of the story was the price paid. As adults it felt natural to try to understand the story whereas Zeitlin wanted to convey Hushpuppy's difficulty in understanding the world around her, and may have confused us in the process.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (a favourite venue for competitive small budget independent film-makers) where it carried off the Grand Jury Prize, and also took the Camera D'Or prize at Cannes. On this side of the Atlantic it picked up a BFI award. In the precocious Wallis we have a child star in the making following in the tradition of Judy Garland's Dorothy and Henry Thomas's Elliott ('ET') and a promising future if not an Oscar nomination may yet beckon despite her lack of actor schooling to date.

As for Zeitlin, he's come a long way in practically no time since his 2008 short 'Glory at Sea'. His talents also extend to composing and animation so it will be interesting to see if he moves away from small scale independent film-making into mainstream cinema. Overall his festival winner came across more as a collective art project from what was his own film school (Court 13) than a fully realised artistically satisfying work, but there is a clear talent here, and the success of his first full length feature should lead to more refined and rigorous work. Keswick's verdict was mixed but the majority were in favour, and practically nobody agreed with Tookey!

Next Sunday features an epic 19thC Portuguese costume drama 'Mysteries of Lisbon' directed by Raoul Ruiz which runs for over 4 hours so it will start at 2pm with a break at the halfway point. Sounds like great value for money at least!

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19th Keswick Film Festival

22nd-25th February 2018


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