Thursday, August 2, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Beasts of the Southern Wild

The much anticipated "Beasts of the Southern Wild" has arrived on our island and the first moments hit you in the chest with camera shots that look like  Spielberg, if his camera had been shaken up by Jackson Pollock. 

This is the coming of age story of a young androgynous girl Hushpuppy, played with a refreshing ferocity by  Quvenzhane Wallis, who lives on the edge of a Delta community that is deluged by water most of the time.

The film has a grand fantastical scope and a visual immediacy that wraps you in a cinematic centrifugal force. Vast fields of scarlet crayfish are juxtaposed against  soggy cardboard shelters and boats are made from discarded cars. This is a crab-like existence for both girl or grackle, boy or boar. Longevity is not guaranteed. You quickly learn in watching the film that all things are made out of meat, and that nature has no patience for meat going anemic or rotten.

It's true that in watching "Beasts of the Southern Wild, you will see quotes from Spielberg, Terrence Malick, "Lord of the Flies" and even John Waters, but the earthy performances ( particularly in the acting of Quvenzhane Wallis)  will make you overlook such self conscious references. Wallis truly lets herself go. Under the amphibious eye of the camera she is cousin to the gator and the bat, forced to slip into slender unwelcome openings to avoid numerous drownings by the constant deluge. Not since "Das Boot" will you see such anxiety in confined spaces and the camera matches the threat.

The most striking element is the film's depiction of Hushpuppy as an existential, quasi-alien creature. In some shots, she is seen in compressed shadow, resembling a slinky column of smoke. In another shot, she sees a shuttered line of bodies wrapped in plastic and attended to by surgical-gloved hands. The echoes of "E.T., are unmistakable.

The kids are often without adults and forced to fend for themselves with either a Peter Pan aplomb or a William Golding gruesome wickedness. One must do anything to survive in such a menacing malarial realm that is not a Third World, but right on the Bayou in USA. 

Menacing the film may be at times, but it is never mean spirited. Hushpuppy's gruff, unpredictable father, played well by newcomer Dwight Henry, is aggressive and forceful, but always well intentioned. The other bathtub dwellers are toothless, drunk and jolly and even the decaying animals in the mud, possess something of the Quantum Fantastic resembling outer space fossils from the latest Ridley Scott adventure. This is a waterlogged woebegone childhood in wizardry. A bit sparkling and a bit ferocious.

The only part that I didn't quite suspend in disbelief was the final submission of the aurochs: those gigantic boars as large as King Kong, who bow in deference to the animal power of Hushpuppy. Granted, the mere sight of these creatures are magnificent, but the end result is right out of C.S. Lewis or Disney and a little too sentimentalized. These creatures lost me at their humble bows. This isn't "Jungle Book". Would not some subtlety here have been more interesting? 

Despite the unnecessary nod to Disney, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" has enough childhood chiaroscuro and half pint haunts to satisfy anyone looking to make their own Jumbalayan Wine.  Quvenzhane Wallis is magnetic, much larger on screen than her slight, wobbly frame suggests. Like a tree in human form, she alone appears to cradle the entire film in her young and reaching branch-like arms.

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