Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

I love movies, I really do.  And I try to embrace all types of movies and come to them with minimal expectations or pre-conceived ideas about them.  I've been richly rewarded over the years for being open-minded about some films that I thought would be dull or stuffy or not germane to my life. A lot of these movies were foreign or independent films, and my life is richer because I gave them a chance.

But try as I might, sometimes the appreciation of a film depends on the mood you are in when you see it, or the age you are, or where you are in life.  And I don't know what frame of mind I would have to be in to have really WANTED to see Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Even less than Life of Pi, I had zero desire to see this critically acclaimed movie. I have no particular problem with films set in backwoods Louisiana.  I have no issue with films about people of other races than me or those who live in impoverished cultures. But, possibly to my shame, I just can't get excited about movies from the perspective of very young girls. It's just not me; I don't care for slasher films either.

And so had Beasts of the Southern Wild not been nominated for a handful of major Oscars, I don't know when I would have searched this film out. Since our date with the 2012 Oscars is fast approaching, I decided to "get this Best Picture nominee out of the way". That means that I approached it like a required homework assignment, which is never the best way to view a movie.

The film is about six year old Hushpuppy, a precocious and smart child who lives in abject poverty in the swamps outside of New Orleans with her father Wink. Wink has a habit of drinking way too much and leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself so often that she is always wondering when her daddy will return.  While Hushpuppy is extremely resourceful, she is always concerned that her world will be irrevocably torn asunder.  This fear is represented in her mind by melting polar icecaps cascading into the sea and visions of vicious giant animals released to run rampant over her community.

Hushpuppy and Wink live in a community known as the Bathtub, so named because it sinks low outside the levee system of southern Louisiana and can fill with flood water during bad storms.  The people of the community have cobbled together homes, boats, and rafts in order to survive any eventual disaster. The community also looks after each other in their own way.

The flood hits the Bathtub, and the community struggles to survive.  Social workers try to evacuate the residents, but they resist going to the FEMA camps.  Hushpuppy also has to face the possible loss of her beloved father, but she does so with strong will and fierce bravery.

Given the "controversy" that struck fellow Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty over its torture scenes, I'm surprised there wasn't a flap that Hushpuppy was living in an abusive situation.  Her home was filthy, her father was often absent, and then drunk when he was around, and he could yell at or slap Hushpuppy whenever he thought the situation warranted it.  I found their relationship to be functional, however. There was a lot of love between them, and Wink did his best to teach Hushpuppy survival skills.

I've seen both Hushpuppy and Quvenzhane Wallis, the young actress who portrays her, described as a "force of nature". The phrase fits the role. Wallis carries the film on her young shoulders surprisingly well. I might be wrong, but I feel this is a performance that was molded by the director as opposed to being an interpretation of the character Hushpuppy by Wallis. With this role, Wallis became the youngest person ever nominated for an acting Oscar. Did she deserve it?  I would say no. She's definitely charismatic in the role and it appears to have been a weak year for leading ladies onscreen, but I really saw no practice of the craft of acting.  There are strong advocates for Wallis's performance out in the movie-watching world, and I will concede that my opinion may be in the minority here because Hushpuppy is always fascinating.

Dwight Henry is another non-actor who scores in the film as Hushpuppy's father Wink.He does seem to be a natural, but I've read where he intends to go back to his business as a baker after Beasts of the Southern Wild runs its course.

I appreciate the artistry of Benh Zeitlin's direction. He created the community of the Bathtub with great vision and outstanding polish for a first film.  It's an excellent job, but do I believe that he deserved his Best Director Oscar nomination?  Well, no -- not at the expense of the unnominated directors Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Ben Affleck (Argo), or Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained).  I am eager to see where Zeitlin's career goes from here, however.  Besides Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, Beasts of the Southern Wild was Oscar-nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

One of my important criteria in evaluating a film is its "rewatchability factor".  A film can be technically excellent but if it doesn't have a strong chance of me rewatching it someday just because I want to, I'm never going to consider it a great film. Thus despite all the things I admire about the film, and the richness of some aspects that will stick with me for a long time, I sort of doubt that I will ever revisit the Bathtub. Beasts of the Southern Wild was worth a viewing, but I didn't love it.  Grade: B.

I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild on DVD on February 1, 2013.

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