Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild - Stories from the Bayou

The images flickering before your eyes are nothing short of mesmerizing. The terrain is a dolorous montage of swampland teeming with dark crabs and catfish, and rugged earth ostensibly ravaged by catastrophe. Yet this is contemporary America somewhere at the fringes of New Orleans. It's a secluded bayou that the locals call the Bathtub constantly imperiled by melting ice caps and, to the mind of a 6 year old child, aurochs - the ancestors of the domestic cattle. They were wild gigantic, carnivorous beasts so savage that they annihilated anything that crossed their paths, and ate even their newborn. And we wonder why they're considered extinct.

In this isolated bayou, 6 year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her emotionally distant father Wink (Dwight Henry) who's afflicted with an obscure illness. Wink keeps the impressionable child at bay, intermittently reminding her "not to cry", pepping her up with "Who's the man" mantras. But their surrounding is a place of desolate poverty; most folks take to their alcohols seriously like Sunday church service. When the rains finally come, downpour turns into ravenous flooding that eventually turns the ecosystem that used to provide food and drinking water to this displaced community into nothing but wasteland. Carcasses are seen floating on swampland, and the fish population has dwindled to nil.With houses and farmlands obliterated, Hushpuppy finds herself homeless. Yet the survivors refuse to evacuate the place. With Wink's declining health, the local community are eventually and forcibly sequestered into hospitals and evacuation centers. Will Wink recover from his illness? What becomes of Hushpuppy?

Quvenzhane Wallis gives an astounding performance as 6 year old Hushpuppy.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a prodigious Oscar entry, with 9 year old Wallis getting the nomination nod for the Best Actress category (the youngest in the category in Oscar history), and we're not surprised. The piece is compelling though, at times, hard to he employs unconventional story telling tack. In fact, the first 30 minutes unravels like a dreamy, albeit disturbing fairy tale, chimerical in its narrative structure and almost otherworldly with its haunting images and the voice over musings of Wallis. There are scenes that would have you breathless (like when Wallis visits a bar filled with hookers to look for her mother, or when Hushpuppy meets a horde of aurochs, or when the frustrated little girl gets frustrated that she burns down her shanty to the ground). If there's an "experiment" in film making, this would be it, not the cinematic gibberish of, say Gym Lumbera's "Anak Araw".

The movie is not for everyone, but reflects the inconstant, if pragmatic taste of the members of the Academy. Ben Affleck's snub as Best Director for "Argo", a film that already won several awards at the Golden Globes (including Best Picture and Best Director) is a major misstep. But they get a sliver of salvation for recognizing the artistic merits in director Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild".  

Navigating the bayou.

Father and daughter

The aurochs as depicted in a painting by Heinrich Harder and (above) in a cave in France (from wikipedia's Prof sax). 

Director Benh Zeitlin. "Beasts..." is his first full length feature, but as young as 6 years old, he already made a "Batman" film with his friend in his New York City neighborhood. 

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