Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)


As far as back as I can remember, there's always that one 'Sundance' film that gets a token Oscar nod for 'Best Picture' every year. But naturally, it usually does not have any chance of winning despite the fact that it is often far superior to half of its competition. For me, that's the Oscars subtly telling the independent film scene that "that's as far as you can go". Such is the case for "Beasts of the Southern Wild", a quasi-fantasy, coming-of-age film that really isn't (based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar). 
With some sheds of "Pan's Labyrinth" in how it has seamlessly enjoined both fantasy and reality in a single continuum, the film is certainly quite refreshing and original. Being a film that's really quite hard to describe, just imagine this: What if a less cynical Werner Herzog and a less abstract Terrence Malick decide to team up and co-direct a children's film? Can you picture it? It's with a kind of profound narration and transcendental music, right? Yeah, that's pretty much how "Beasts of the Southern Wild" looks and feels like. 
For a film whose visuals rely heavily on images of poverty and semi-submerged squalor, "Beasts of the Southern Wilds" surprisingly lacks any embedded social messages. Instead, what the film has done is substitute a potentially pedestrian tackling of poverty with a completely unique exploration of innocence and pride that's finely fitted within an engrossing, quasi-magical atmosphere. 
Throughout the film, there's a relatively fascinating establishment of the return of the aurochs, an ancient group of giant wild boars that has lived millions of years ago, presumably for a kind of reckoning. But to first set the record straight, aurochs are actually direct ancestors of the modern cattle and not of wild boars, which is quite puzzling to me as to why the makers of the film did not fully rename the creature instead. But at this point, we do not care anymore because one, the film is utterly justified in this aspect because it is structured within a reality of its own, and two, because the film has a far more important angle to cover, and that is the roller coaster relationship between Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and his hot-headed father Wink (Dwight Henry). 
Together, both characters, thanks to Benh Zietlin's involving direction and both actors' heart-aching performances (Dwight Henry should have received an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. Am I asking for too much?), dance in the rhythm of great dramatic chemistry without really trying hard to do so, all while the film's more fantastical nature unravels quite masterfully on the side. But then again, the very same 'fantasy elements' that have been laid down piece by piece with such care is the very same aspect that has quite disappointed me. For a person who has expected an equal distribution of both fantasy and reality, I ended up asking for more from the former. But if you come to think of it, the presence of the aurochs in the film is never intended to be quite literal just like how Aslan in the "Chronicles of Narnia" is. What it actually is, at least in my view, is a mountainously symbolic representation of Hushpuppy's ultimate 'test' before she can actually, as what the plot summary states, 'learn the way of courage and love', and it's quite effective because it gives the film a heightened sense of mythological resonance. 
"Beasts of the Southern Wild", an uncommon film of visual and thematic grace, is forged out of a unique cinematic spirit and genuine human warmth. The people of Baththub (that's what the film's water-surrounded town is called), although burdened by their difficult and relatively uncivilized way of life and are constantly being antagonized by welfare workers trying to get them out of there, is certainly a proud lot, and Hushpuppy, a girl that knows and feels more than the average kid, is slowly learning that pride, after all, is not that of a bad thing. While Wink, his father, has learned that crying is not a sign of emasculation but a vital proof of life. Indeed, the characters have learned something throughout the course of the film, and so have I.


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