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Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

August 23, 2012

9/10 Bayou Countries

Sometimes a movie just knocks you right out.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is about a little girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her daddy in The Bathtub – a fictional island community nestled in the rising waters outside The Levee. They don’t have much, and sometimes they don’t even have that, but when a mighty storm threatens to wash The Bathtub away, they batten down the hatches instead of heading for the mainland. Lo and behold, The Bathtub gets flooded. So Hushpuppy and her daddy get in their flatbed/dinghy and start searching for their friends. But as her daddy’s health worsens and the world starts crumbling down, Hushpuppy starts doing her best to fix things while learning life’s hard truths in the process.

I’ve had a good two weeks now to mull this one over, and it’s hasn’t gotten any easier to pinpoint what it is about Beasts of the Southern Wild that makes it so special. Maybe it’s because it’s ultimately more of an experience per se than it is a movie. Or maybe ’cause it doesn’t follow the conventions we’re used to, opting instead to tell its own story in its own way. Granted, there’s never just one thing you can point to in a movie to say what makes it good or bad, but it is rare to find one that’s so good on so many levels that you don’t even know where to start.

I’ll do my best to elaborate without sounding like a broken record, but yeah, this is one you just have to see for yourself.

For starters, writer/director Benh Zeitlin must have been using some black magic to get this sucker looking like it does. It has been a while since such an obviously fictional movie looked like it was anything but. At least for me it has. Off the top of my head, the last time I felt this way was six whole years ago with one of the all-time greats, Children of Men. It’s not that I was unaware that English women are in fact super fertile and weren’t actually waist-deep in the baby apocalypse, but if I hadn’t known better, I think I would have bought it without checking the price tag. Same goes for Beasts. Not like I was under the impression I could book a flight to The Bathtub and that aurochs have up and returned from extinction. But the reason Beasts is so visually enthralling is the same reason Children of Men was: it looks more like the world we live in than a world that’s been conjured up.

Children of Men is arguably the most realistic-looking apocalypse movie that’s ever graced this fine Earth, and Beasts of the Southern Wild makes the fairy tale world of The Bathtub look like a bucket list destination we’ve all been missing out on. That’s what’s so amazing about set design and art direction when its pulled off like this: it makes you believe. Given all the detail and identity that goes into every inch of every set, I honestly couldn’t differentiate from the authentic and the staged. It all looks so lived in, so hand-made and personal to everyone involved in this story. I realize there’s a good chance that none of what I just said may sound like much of a selling point, but when you see it, it goes a long, long way in getting you invested right quick. The fact is, you just don’t see too many movies with this kind of seamless effort and this kind of boundless creativity in ’em.

There are just these scenes, man. Like when Hushpuppy narrates about how her mama was “…so pretty, she didn’t even have to turn on the stove. She just had to walk by and the water would start boiling.” Cut to her mama gliding through the kitchen, waving her hand over an oven, and lighting the burners without touching a dial. It helps to see it in action, but damn if that wasn’t the most awesome scene I’ve seen all year. And the movie is filled with moments like that! “Wow” moments that bring all this tough love and Southern mysticism to life like you wouldn’t believe. It’s got character, and if Terry Gilliam and Terrence Malick had themselves a celluloid love child, this is probably what would end up in the delivery room. Although even that is selling it kinda short.

And speaking of Hushpuppy, little Quvenzhane Wallis here is a freakin’ firecracker. What that girl lacks in size, she makes up for in gusto.

So if there’s one thing we’ll all be agreeing upon, it’s that there’s no denying how gorgeous this movie is on the outside. See it, get back to me, at least we’ll have the visuals. But then there’s the inside, and that’s where things get interesting.

The thing about the script is that I’m almost tempted to call it sloppy. There are a number of underlying conflicts here to drive the plot along (eg: the damn storm, the declining health of Hushpuppy’s daddy), but that’s about as familiar as it gets. For the most part, things tend to fly by the seat of their pants. Characters don’t develop like they usually do, the overlying conflicts seem to kinda happen as they happen, and by the time it all comes full circle, it’s not worth asking how we got there because the answers don’t come easy. If it were any other movie, I probably would call it sloppy and move on, but somehow it isn’t. Instead, it’s all part of the adventure and it’s nothing short of magical watching it flow right along.

You see, the overarching theme of the story is that everything in life has its purpose, and when even the smallest of things falls out of line, the universe follows suit. To paraphrase Hushpuppy, the thing that matters when order turns to disorder is what we do to stop the bleeding and how we pick up all the pieces. It’s an epic take on life as we know it, and it’s amazing to watch these Bathtubians rise to the occasion. With each new friend that Hushpuppy and her daddy find, and with each new roadblock they hit along the way, they’re always trying to make lemonade out of the situation. Bathtub’s flooded? Screw going back to the mainland with the rest of those deserters, we’re gonna build us a floating house! Salt water’s killin’ off the fish? Wrassle up an alligator hide, throw some dynamite in it, and start doggy-paddlin’ for The Levee! Again, probably sounds kinda weird out of context, but it’s really, really moving when it’s all going down.

But as enjoyable as that all is, the beauty of Beasts of the Southern Wild is this feeling that everyone who sees it is going to come away with something different. It’s a very open-ended movie, and right up to the end, it’s hard to say exactly what it is that we’re supposed to gain from each development and conversation. But the impact is there: this gut feeling that’ll have you running the emotional gamut even if you can’t put those feelings into words. Even after all this rambling of mine, I still feel like I haven’t even come close to putting down a concrete explanation of how this affected me. What I can say is this: it’s a story about living and about learning how to. It’s about grabbing life by the horns and sucking out the marrow. It’s as invigorating as anything I’ve seen all year. I loved it.

That’s as concrete as it gets.

It might put some people off – not being able to say what the movie’s “about” after 93 minutes – then again, I like coming up with my own explanations, it gets people talking. For those keeping track, I’m pretty sure I said the same thing about The Tree of Life last year, and that one’s still backfiring on me. But everyone who just rolled their eyes at that last sentence, fear not, this is far easier to appreciate than The Tree of Life. Plus, no dinosaurs.

I feel like I should have more to write about with Beasts of the Southern Wild, but some movies are just bigger than words. It’s the score, it’s the heart, it’s The Bathtub, it’s the evolution of Hushpuppy; it’s the whole shebang, man. I wasn’t sold when I bought the ticket, but by the opening sequence was over (which is likely the best opening sequence I’ll see all year), I was hook, line, and sinker. I watch that trailer now and I get goosebumps. Always great when movies make you happy to be alive, make you want to live as large as they are. The world needs more movies like that.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2012 7:24 am

    good post, movie looks interesting

    • August 27, 2012 6:51 pm

      Thanks! It’s awesome, highly recommend giving it a go, especially given how much garbage is out there right now. Thanks for stopping by!

      • August 28, 2012 2:56 pm

        agree with you when you say garbage. movies are not as good as before. more misses than hits now

      • August 28, 2012 4:57 pm

        Agreed. There will always be great stuff to balance out all the garbage, just boggles the mind how sapped for originality the industry is to the point where it has to remake and reboot everything that’s already been done. Serenity now…

  2. August 24, 2012 4:24 pm

    Great review. I think the reason why I loved this movie (especially as a local of Nola) was because it felt so authentic. The main actors had no acting experience, and their delivery was remarkable…they really, REALLY raised the acting bar for the top notch actors in Hollywood!

    • August 27, 2012 6:51 pm

      Thanks! And I LOVED how authentic it felt. HUGE reason for the Verdict it earned, and I’ve never even been to Nola (which makes me feel shame). I read that Hushpuppy’s daddy was actually a local cook or convenience store owner that the film crew frequented on the regular before asking him if he wanted to act. That is so awesome, and I agree, these are the kind of performances that deserve six-figure paychecks on the regular.

  3. August 24, 2012 8:01 pm

    I gave you a little shout out in the vast cacophony of wordpress. Thanks for your posts!

    • August 27, 2012 6:48 pm

      Sweet! Thanks! Great questions, too. Really have to get around to answering these soon!

  4. Branden permalink
    August 24, 2012 9:54 pm

    I think the movie is celebration of the human spirit. That is what got me when I saw the film. It was first time in a couple were I was on the verge of tears. I was galvanized in my seat. I didn’t want to movie to end. It’s a wonderful time in the theater.

    • August 27, 2012 6:48 pm

      That’s a great way to put it, man, and exactly the kind of comment I was looking for. I was totally choked up too there at the end with the fried gator and that final march along the levee. Great stuff, itching to see it again.

      • Branden permalink
        August 27, 2012 7:25 pm

        A movie with non-actors would spell disaster but it gives the movie authenticity that seasoned actors might not give it. This will be be my number movie of this year unless something blows it out of the water.

      • August 28, 2012 4:54 pm

        It’s up there for me, too. Currently duking it out with Moonrise Kingdom, Cabin in the Woods, and Indie Game: The Movie.

  5. Nic permalink
    August 24, 2012 11:25 pm

    For the most part I’ve only heard good things about this movie and I’d really like to see it. Unfortunately it isn’t playing anywhere near me,

    • August 27, 2012 6:47 pm

      The rumors are true, but that’s such a bummer to hear. Where are you based out of?

  6. August 26, 2012 11:29 am

    I’ve been interested in this since I saw the trailer and you just pushed me over the edge – as soon as it shows near me I’ll be checking it out. Great post.

    Side note however, I really can’t agree about Children of Men being so great but yeah the world it conjured up was pretty interesting, the rest I found to be weak and predictable. But anyway that’s just my two cents.

    • August 27, 2012 6:46 pm

      Thanks! And happy to help sway your opinion!

      Funny you say that about Children of Men. I get that reaction a lot of from folks, especially everyone I started recommending it to when it first came out on video. I do know one fellow blogger who was of your mindset, went back and watched it again years later, and ended up loving it, but I feel like that’s a rare sea change of sorts for this movie. But hey, different strokes for different folks, man. Can’t win ’em all.

  7. Victor De Leon permalink
    August 31, 2012 2:23 pm

    I’ve heard such awesome things about this movie. Thanks for the review. It’s on my “to watch” list now.

    • August 31, 2012 6:02 pm

      Thanks! Believe the hype, man. There’s a whole lot of trash out there right now, this definitely ain’t part of the majority.


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