Movie review: ‘Beasts …’ – lovely primitive art cloaked in dubious drama
The tiny, fierce, frizzy-haired heroine at the heart of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is undoubtedly an indomitable heartbreaker and the force largely responsible for much of the swooning praise being heaped on this gritty, low-budget, post-apocalyptic fable by film festival audiences and more than a few earnest critics.
She’s Hushpuppy (played with breathtaking tenacity and serene self-possession by 6-year-old newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis), a feral child of the mythical Louisiana bayou region known as “the Bathtub.” It’s the swampy, junk-strewn ghetto setting of first-time director Benh Zeitlin’s visually artful but dramatically sketchy allegory of primitive life versus progressive civilization.
Loosely adapted from Lucy Alibar’s play “Juicy and Delicious” (widely described as a “bluegrass musical about sex and Southern food”) and shot on location in Terrebone Parish, La., with a cast of non-actors, “Beasts …” is certainly remarkable for its artistic audacity and its brave indie spirit.
But Zeitlin’s lyrical abilities as a visual scenarist far outpace his patchy skills as a dramatist. Like an art-house “Mad Max” or a post-Katrina “Where the Wild Things Are,” his film is much more derivative and less startlingly original than it appears at first blush.
Overall, it seems a precocious art-student collage of earthy magical realism, Southern Gothic melodrama, survivalist grit, primitive folk art and Cajun allegory – owing much to the metaphysical dreaminess of Terrence Malick and to recent rustic indies such as David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” and Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone.”
The story begins with a stunning prelude depicting the hardscrabble lives of misfits and rabble-rousers who inhabit a wrong-side-of-the-levee area known as “the Bathtub” and introducing us to a patois-flavored narrator, Hushpuppy, a pint-sized force of nature scurrying around in her orange underpants and white rubber boots. (She’s seen early on in an indelible, mystical scene, running through the swamp holding two sparkling Roman candles thrust out at her sides.)
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