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Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

New Orleans-based ‘Beasts’ unleashes a flood of emotions
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 91 min
Release Date: 2012-06-27
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

What was the last movie you can remember about desperately poor people?

Not twinkly homeless men who have the secret to a happy life, or blue-collar workers struggling to pay bills. I’m talking about people who don’t notice the rain dripping through holes in tin roofs, who labor to get food from their withered gardens, who live without televisions and maybe without phones but never, never without alcohol. (To answer my own question: “Winter’s Bone” in 2010.)

We don’t like to think about these people in the presumed land of prosperity, and our culture marginalizes them to the point of near-invisibility.

So “Beasts of the Southern Wild” would be remarkable for that reason alone. But this year’s winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance has plenty going for it.

The first thing that will strike you is the fiercely proud Hushpuppy, a girl of about 6 whose mother left her at birth and whose father is a hard-drinking, hard-scrabble farmer with an ailment that will soon strike him down.

She’s played by first-timer Quvenzhané Wallis, who gives a terrific performance. She’s not merely natural, like many good child actors; she inhabits this indomitable girl, who’s innocent and philosophic and primal by turns.

The essence of her philosophy – and the movie’s – is this: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.” But to her mind, the universe comes undone when she strikes her father (the equally powerful Dwight Henry) in the chest.

From there on, disaster ensues. The Bathtub, as inhabitants call the watery region below the levees of New Orleans, gets cut off and virtually swamped by a storm. Her father weakens perceptibly.

And far away, from beneath crumbling polar ice, prehistoric aurochs emerge and head toward Hushpuppy’s home. (Aurochs get a rough deal here: They were plant-eaters in life, but the extinct beasts are depicted as huge, horned razorback hogs with a hankering for human flesh.)

Director Benh Zeitlin also makes his feature debut with “Beasts.” He wrote the script with Lucy Alibar from her play “Juicy and Delicious,” and they find visually interesting ways to embody things that could only be hinted at onstage. (Ben Richardson’s sometimes realistic, sometimes dreamlike cinematography adds weight to the film, which looks and sounds like a much more costly feature.)

The movie does sometimes feel padded: A scene where Hushpuppy searches for her mom in a floating brothel adds nothing. I was also left wondering if Zeitlin’s clear environmental message is tied to a murkier statement about our social structure.

The universally poor people of The Bathtub celebrate holidays all the time and have achieved a kind of racial harmony that has eluded many of their onshore neighbors. There’s a suggestion that we ignore them at their peril, and they may boil over if left to simmer too long.

But perhaps Zeitlin isn’t really making an issue of class distinctions. Maybe he’s just suggesting that we don’t know these people very well, and our lives would be richer if we did.

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7/18/2012 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

A story of the resilient spirits of people living below New Orleans levees, told through the eyes of a little girl.

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