13 August, 2012

Review: "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (*****)

Quvenzhané Wallis stars in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Rare is a film that comes along and wins awards at both Sundance and Cannes. Until now, no film that has accomplished both feats has ever been anchored by a five-year-old or set in a place called 'the Bathtub.' After learning that the casting call was for six to nine-year-olds, Quvenzhané Wallis lied about her age in order to secure an audition. Boy, was that a good move! As far as I'm concerned, Wallis' performance as Hushpuppy catapults this film into iconic territory. This is not just a precocious kid getting fed good lines. Wallis' face speaks words that she isn't even old enough to have learned yet.

While no doubt remains that this film belongs to Wallis, her performance is just one piece of a larger puzzle that "depends on everything fitting together just right." Everything fits together more than just right and I'm thrilled to award Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" a five-star rating.

Director Benh Zeitlin's first feature film is a masterpiece. Each frame crackles with the energy of the sparklers little Hushpuppy carries in the title sequence. Zeitlin's vision for the film is obviously all his own. Amazingly, this vision comes to life in every aspect of the film, from the performances and editing to the photography and music. Playing just like a storybook, a new chapter begins each time we see the ancient aurochses on their way to the Bathtub. As if this wasn't creative enough, the film is filtered still through the eyes and imagination of Hushpuppy, with each new thing she learns altering her perception of the universe as a whole.

Without any lack of action or movement in the story, the plot is actually pretty minimal. When a storm floods the Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her dad set out to see what and who are left in the community. Upon discovering some friends and shacks still around, the remaining residents gather and work together to survive in their new, tougher conditions. The most affecting subplot revolves around Hushpuppy leaving to find her mother, resulting in one of the most magical and emotional scenes I can ever recall seeing on film. Emotion propels the film along and Wallis, along with Dwight Henry as her father, elevate it high, high above the floodwaters.

Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Dwight Henry was a local baker whom the production crew was familiar with before shooting the film. While running his own business gave him plenty to do, Zeitlin and company finally convinced him to play Wink, Hushpuppy's father. Combined with Wallis, these are very inspired acting discoveries. I hope to see both garner Oscar nominations by the end of the year, remaining confident that at least Wallis will. Supporting actress Gina Montana as Miss Bathsheeba deserves a mention here as well.

The score, composed by Dan Romer with Zeitlin, is one of the best and most distinctive in years. A few beautiful themes consistently resonate throughout the course of the film. Wistful strings lead the way, with some triumphant brass coming in just in time for your heart to burst. Romer and Zeitlin blend Zydeco and Jazz influences with a little bit of a Celtic mystique. The score reminds me a lot of my all time favorite, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' score to "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

Perhaps a silly question, but can Benh Zeitlin ever top this film? Not that I would put it past anyone that accomplished a film like this in the first place. He has showcased exceptional talent, skill and vision here. He is most definitely capable, but it would not be a failure if this film remained his masterwork throughout his career. Regardless, I look forward to anything he will make in the future.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a must-see for all people and all ages, no matter their taste in film.

5 out of 5 stars.

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