[Screen It]


(2012) (Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry) (PG-13)

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Drama: A 6-year-old girl, her occasionally abusive but protective father and their fellow outcast friends must contend with changes that nature is sending their way.
In an impoverished coastal area of Louisiana known to the locals as "the bathtub" -- due to being the lowest point of ground around and surrounded by water and levees -- 6-year-old Emma a.k.a. Hushpuppy (QUVENZHANE WALLIS) is a young girl living among squalor. With her mother dead and her father, Wink (DWIGHT HENRY), ailing, she's quickly learned how to fend for herself in their makeshift home.

Fascinated by all of the nature surrounding her, guided by her belief that everything in the universe is interconnected, and informed by her teacher that it could all unravel at any moment, she's determined to fix things. And namely that would be to get her occasionally abusive yet protective father healthy again. Like his fellow outcast friends in the bayou, he's fiercely independent and wants no outside help, and he's just as prone to yell and strike out at his daughter as he is to teach her his way of surviving in their shrinking world.

But the environment is changing and that sends various dangers headed their way. Beyond her father's failing health, Hushpuppy must also contend with prehistoric aurochs that have been unleashed from their icy grip to the aftermath of a storm that fills up the bathtub with floodwaters.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Here's the problem with most any well-known actor or actress. Unless they're hidden under a lot of make-up or have had their appearance digitally altered in some way, there's always going to be some part of every viewer who still sees them as the performer rather than the character they're playing. And that's the case even if their performance is stellar and they manage to pull off an uncanny recreation of some historical figure or just appear as a brand new fictional one.

That's the beauty of smaller, independent movies featuring brand new faces, at least to the majority of viewers. I'm sure their friends, family and coworkers still see the real person behind the part, but for the rest of us -- and especially if the performance is strong to stellar -- we only see the character and not the performer.

Such is the case for the two leads in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a look at a dysfunctional daughter-father relationship set immediately before and then right after the aftermath of a Katrina like flooding episode in far southern Louisiana. Marking the collective debut of writer/director Benh Zeitlin, co-writer Lucy Alibar, and leads Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, the film is a mesmerizing and engrossing look at those rarely seen in the movies, let alone real life, and recently won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

While the aftermath of the real Katrina disaster showed the horrendous results on those stranded in flooded New Orleans, little to no media attention was paid to those living in the fringe coastal regions. This film, while fictional, takes a look at the lives of a few such people who reside near modern civilization but literally and figuratively exist in entirely different environs that few ever see.

Economically pour yet richly rewarded with natural surroundings, possessing just remnants and cast-offs of material goods but seemingly content with what they have, these denizens don't want the trappings of modern life and certainly don't appreciate the outside world encroaching on their resilient and self-sufficient existence.

For 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Wallis in an outstanding debut, especially considering her age and lack of experience), this is the only life she's known. While her mother "swam away" (presumably died) sometime in the past, she can still hear her encouraging voice and the girl often "talks" to her, and that seems to be a more solid and satisfying parental relationship than she has with her ailing, alcoholic and sometimes abusive father (Henry, also amazing in his first cinematic performance).

They fight, yell and sometimes throw things and he's certainly far from being a traditional good role model. Yet, he's fiercely protective of her and is trying, in his own unique way, to teach her how to survive in the world once he's gone. Like his daughter's teacher, he knows that things could unravel at any moment, and that theme, along with similar notions of the beauty, power and dangers of nature, not to mention that everything in the universe is interconnected, run rampant throughout the film's 90-some minute runtime.

They might sound too pretentious, heady and/or depressing to some viewers, but the filmmakers handle all of it with utmost aplomb. Visualized in Oscar-worthy work by cinematographer Ben Richardson, they've made a film that comes off like the unexpected offspring of the pairing of Terry Gilliam, Terence Malick and especially Maurice Sendak and his "Where the Wild Things Are" look at a child's view of her universe. And their 6-year-old protagonist serves as their narrator and our guide through this world and her unique way of looking at it.

During all of that, some of the elements might seem bizarre or distracting, including views of aurochs -- giant, prehistoric boar-like creatures -- that have been unleashed from tens of thousands of years of entrapment to ice and are headed in the direction of the bathtub.

They, of course, are metaphors in this modern fairy tale, designed not only as warnings about human behavior having effects elsewhere (that ties into the interconnected universe theme), but also the "storm" that's headed toward such simpler lifestyles and could likely sweep such communities off into the sea of extinction.

The real Katrina-esque storm does eventually arrive, a development that continues those themes but also alters the dysfunctional father-daughter relationship in unexpected ways. That latter adjective pretty much sums up the film, as it's filled with such moments and delivers far more than any outsider could have imagined this band of cinematic novices could have pulled off.

And with no recognizable faces to distract us, we end up completely immersed in this gritty but beautiful and fantastical world. An impressive debut all around, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is unlike most anything you'll see this year and rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 30, 2012 / Posted July 13, 2012

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