The highly-touted Sundance film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has finally washed up on the shores of Denver. It arrives amidst all kinds of internet debate that is pro and con with most of the reviews touching on many aspects of the film but specifically the filmmakers.
Why did this film bring all of this out?
You know what? I am not going there but feel free to look at some of the links above to read various sides to the story. “Beasts” is a refreshingly engaging small film that aims for the level of folk-myth, which in and of itself is a bold move for a such a personal story. When one thinks of the majority of indie movies these days that arrive in our theaters with that Park City, Utah stamp of approval, “Beasts” stands out (to be fair, Sundance has gotten a lot better in recent years since they’ve moved on from the quirky family comedies of the recent past – Take Shelter, Bellflower, Mary Martha Marcy Marlene).
Ostensibly the story of a young girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her alcoholic and terminally-ill father Wink in the Bathtub down in the swampy environs near New Orleans. Hushpuppy was played by Quvenzhané Wallis, a newcomer who did not play the much dreaded and often-lamented role of the preternaturally gifted & intelligent young kid who shows the adults the follies of their ways – seriously too many to mention in recent film, just find a recent romcom, there’s bound to be one their dispensing advice. The Bathtub is a refuge for lost souls living in shacks crafted from flotsam and jetsam found in the swamps. Drinking and lighting off fireworks highlight one of the films most visually fascinating passages as it leads to the title card (and can be seen in a great shot on the poster). Wink tries hard to impart all of his knowledge to Hushpuppy as he knows his time is short and since her mother has “swam away.” He wants to do what he can to help Hushpuppy navigate the murky waters (pun fully intended) ahead in her life, so his gruff life lessons and the occasional violence punctuate their scenes together.
Being a child full of wonder, imagination and general confusion at the adult world, Hushpuppy narrates the film where she occasionally imparts koan-like bits of wisdom like – “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right” or “”Everyone’s hearts are beating and squirting and talking to each other in ways that I can’t understand.” Close to that dreaded cliche of the gifted, world-wise child but not quite there. Your enjoyment of the film can hinge on whether or not you buy into this mythical thinking from a small child or you find it ridiculous. The films visuals follow this same line as it tracks her POV of the adults in her world. I bought into the movie right from the start , running through the mud and exploring her world with all of the denizens of the Bathtub which felt like the antidote to the clean, sterile FEMA world of safety that the government officials wanted to wrangle up and force them into. For this reviewer the movie revolves around whose narrative you want to live in – the one you create or the one that you are forced into? Does life really comes down to binary choices? Can’t we be allowed to create and imagine different worlds? The film raises more questions like these than it answers, which feels…refreshing.
In the end, when tragedy descends via a flood and the resultant bombing of the levee to relieve the flood brings the government in to “rescue” everyone. Hushpuppy and three other girls take a journey to a floating restaurant which appears to sell catfish and prostitution which sounds ludicrous as written but in the film it is touching as Hushpuppy imagines she has found her wayward mother. This along with several other scenes evoke timeless myths like the Odyssey and the Sirens. Her imagination, like most children, helps her to make sense of her world and it gives her the courage as the mythical “auroch” beasts which have been chasing her the entire film finally catch up to her. Can she summon up the courage and creativity to navigate the dangers, disappointments and demands of life? Has Wink prepared her for it all?
Head down to the glorious Mayan Theater on Broadway to find out. This reviewer will be taking another trip in the floating bed of a truck real soon.