Post-Katrina Wild Rumpus
A Sundance sensation, Beasts of the Southern Wild focuses on a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy and her father. She is played by Quvenzhané Wallis, he by Dwight Henry. This is the first film for both actors, and they deliver authentic and forceful performances. It is as if these fascinating and flawed characters exist in their DNA. She in particular is a force of nature, creating a pint-sized heroine audiences will be unable to resist.
Hushpuppy and her alcoholic, ailing father exist outside the conventions and expectations of modern society. They live among free spirits and rejects on the other side of a dam.
A scene depicting her birth leads one to believe there is no record of her existence, and her father teaches her to avoid or even despise the modern world, represented in her eyes by a distant factory. Hers is an independent space where the mythic reigns supreme. It is a place where the alcohol never stops flowing, and a plate of steaming hot crayfish is never far away. Then, however, a storm comes and challenges their way of life. This storm is never named, though one's mind goes straight to a certain moment late in the summer of 2005.
As an audio/visual spectacle, this film can rival and at times even top the far more expensive summer films with which it shares theatres. The heavily relied upon original score, co-composed by the director, is grand, at times monumental, reminiscent of an Arcade Fire or U2 song. Shot with a camera almost always in motion, the film's colors and textures are atmospheric and diverse, and they lend the film a certain unimpeachable verisimilitude even as the storyline ventures into magical realism.
At the same time, however, it is hard not to question the film, even as it astounds and moves the audience with ease. To a certain degree, it represents a director with a private education placing the impoverished on a pedestal in the name of Oscar courting art-house transcendence.
When clean-clothed representatives of the modern world come to our heroine's town after the storm bearing modern medicine and liberal sympathies, the scene plays with an almost horror-movie level of discomfort, which is a shade absurd. In the end, is this land before (above?) time, this land of dreams and sea chantey singing wild men and derelict trailer homes, where we wish to leave this bright and charismatic girl? The film says it should be (it is her home, and she is free), and maybe it is. But I feel a certain doubt, and this doubt is why I cannot describe Beasts of the Southern Wild as a masterpiece, even though I almost wept at the end and was in awe throughout.