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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild arrives rather like a children’s book brought to life and projected large.  Unfortunately, with all due respect to the rich history of children’s literature, it doesn’t seem to have come from a very good book.  The source of “Beasts” is, in fact, a one act play entitled Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar.  The play was adapted for the screen by its author and director Benh Zeitlin.  

It’s an ambitious first feature, and one that shows some promise for its young director.  But as ever, so much hinges on story.  Screenwriter Robert Riskin, several times a collaborator with Frank Capra, who was sick of the director taking credit for his work, apparently once waved a blank page in the other man's face and said, "Put the famous Capra touch on that!"  Well, yes.  Visual medium though it might be, intensely visual though "Beasts" is, writing is still an important part of the equation.  Hopefully director Zietlin, when next applying his own magic, will find himself a better (though not likely a bigger) story.  That might involve hiring someone other than himself to do the writing.

The thing with which Beasts of the Southern Wild has most impressed audiences and festival award committees, I can only presume, is its bold mix of harsh reality and child-like fancy; its magical realism, some might say.  Zeitlin actually handles both of these extremes with a sure enough hand.  The problem is the story, the characters and the dialog, which fall within this fanciful framework about as delicately as the heavy, charging hooves of one of the “aurochs,” loosed from their frozen resting places in the Arctic and sent charging across the earth.

Somewhere in a Louisiana bayou, in an area called “The Bathtub,” some savory and often sweet folk live, an easy blend of black and white.  “Beasts” centers its story on young Hushpuppy and her father Wink, living out their unconventional lives in a couple of ramshackle dwellings, in and often on the bayou.  The problem, aside from Wink’s temper and ailing heart and a deceased mother with whom Hushpuppy often communes, is a natural disaster heading for The Bathtub.  This is explained by Miss Bathsheba, the schoolteacher, who speaks of the upcoming melt of polar caps, release of aurochs and disastrous inflow of the oceans' salt water.  It’s a warning that the adults take as seriously than the children, although Wink is determined to ride out the storm. 

Of course, any story set in Southern Louisiana that deals with a cataclysmic flood is going to evoke Hurricane Katrina and some of those horrible events of 2005.  New Orleans itself sits in a depression which could be characterized a bathtub.  Beasts of the Southern Wild can’t help but trade off some of the deep feeling created by those events, the feelings of those who suffered as well as all the accumulated horror (and guilt) who those who looked helplessly on.  The film names neither the city nor the hurricane, but both are present.  

In the most muddled story line in a film whose plots are as murky as the bayou waters through which its characters are often conveyed, Wink and a few helpers actually set out to blow open a levee to relieve the deadly salt water flood of the bathtub, attaching a garfish loading with explosives to a levee wall.  Of course, the actual breach of levees (as well as the Mississippi River - Gulf Outlet canal along the lower 9th ward)  resulted in the flood of 80% of New Orleans and the death of more than 700 people.  Although Miss Bathsheba tries to stop Wink and his crew, the levee is blown none-the-less, restoring at least the normal water level in The Bathtub, but revealing the full scale of flood destruction and the animals killed.  

Although "Beasts" writers would seem to regard the inhabitants of The Bathtub as self sufficient and living more in tune with the natural world than the man-made world of levees, oil refineries and hospitals where people are attached by tubes to walls to die, there are some significant mixed messages in their story.  With the volatile Wink, we have a man short-sighted enough to blow open a levee.  Although not attached to the Katrina disaster, it's a version of history in which locals create their own problems.  And while we're all  painfully aware that neither Brownie nor most any government official did a good job in responding to the real storm that most recently devastated Southern Louisiana, the world of The Bathtub is hardly a model of sustainability for an increasingly crowded world in need of  moving forward.  Unfortunately, it's mainly a charming and muddled distraction from very real and looming problems.  The aurochs might not be coming, but the water probably is.  

Alibar and Zietlin may be spinning more fable (Zeitlin's parents are folklorists) than realism, but there is still a need to infuse in all this wonder and tumult some coherence, the very word Hushpuppy utters longingly in a conversation with a boat captain, in what may well "Beasts" most stilted and portentous sequence.  Although that odyssey, in which Hushpuppy sets out across the water in search of her absent mother, does culminate (or reach a nadir) in a bayou establishment with a weathered sign that reads, "GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS," where we are treated to an exotic dancer, if not hooker, with a heart of gold.  Hushpuppy is taken in briefly by the woman, who cooks for her, shows her a trick and gives the girl a fleeting moment of maternal affection.  This, like many of the characters, situations and dialog in Beasts of the Southern Wild, aims at a kind of compassion and big-heartedness which might be admirable.  But cliches and rusty contrivance don't really help anyone.   

Often occupying the screen and carrying this clumsy story on her young back is Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy.  For one so young and inexperienced, she does a fairly admirable job of it, much as her usually two-note performance is not exactly the stuff of best actress of the year considerations.  That nod from The Academy is as condescending as it is silly.  

Much of what we see in Beasts of the Southern Wild is rather wondrous.  The film does that thing which big, sprawling films sometimes do - taking us into a completely different world.  Director Benh Zeitlin and his crew impressively - and absolutely no pun intended here - immerse themselves in the locations utilized for film, from the beauty of the bayou to all the detritus among which Hushpuppy and Wink live.  We have the setting for something special, but it's all pictures and no book.   




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