Film Reviews and Discussion.
Dir: Ben Zeitlin
Film preoccupied with death. Salvation. Innocence. Purity. Love and anger. Through the eyes of a 6-year-old.
This first feature from director Ben Zeitlin comes laden with plaudits and success. Fresh from securing the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and Camèra d’Or award at Cannes, it achieved its UK premiere as part of the London Film Festival, and even went on to win their Sutherland Award for Best First Feature.
With so much praise hanging on this picture, does it live up to the expectation? Having been adapted from Lucy Alibar’s one-act play (‘Lucy and Delicious’), the premise is as follows; 6-year-old Hushpuppy (first-timer Quvenzhane Wallis) resides in pitiful squalor and destitution, which is de rigueur for life within the Bathtub; a bayou community in a distressed area of America. Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is an aggressive drunk. He is distant and an emotional vacuum, offering no support for little Hushpuppy, who struggles to secure much, if any, love from the neighbours or the cruel atrophy of her surroundings. With a sense of impending doom, a storm is on the horizon. The rattle and hum of the storm and subsequent flood injects fearful concern for the future of these patrons and of the area itself. Indeed, the storm releases the ancient beasts of the southern wild, from their frozen tombs in the poles. Stalking the land, they appear to be out on the hunt for blood. Are these the end times? Only time will tell if their hunt bears fruit. One thing is for certain; Hushpuppy needs her father. She needs him to help her survive. However, he also needs her. He is in no state to endure these testing conditions. Perhaps they can help each other? Both learn plenty as events unfold.
The story is not faultless. It could be argued that the shift in attitude by the father as the story progresses is too convenient, and too contrived. Also, the blanket lack of compassion from the other characters towards Hushpuppy could be seen as unrealistic. Shot on 16mm, and with a sepia tinge, this is a film happy to wallow in a rugged palette, offering colours that display and enhance grimness. The camera moves as though through the eyes of Hushpuppy. The consequence of this is the heightened sensitivity to noise and the baleful nature of the world, which might explain the simple drawing of the characters. Quvenzhane Wallis is exceptional. She has a magnetic quality and exudes a feral charm, which essential to the character of Hushpuppy. The hope must be for her not to disappear into the abyss of many a child actor/ress. Dwight Henry, also in his first film, is authentically temperamental, and bubbles and boils with a barely contained rage. He was plucked from obscurity, working as he did in a shop across the road from the office of the director. His find shows a degree of serendipity; he is perfect for the role.
The Bathtub itself offers a ruinous backdrop, rain-soaked and swampy, and resembles New Orleans in its post-Hurricane Katrina state. The community move like pilgrims, in search for survival. There are ecological and Buddhist messages subtly invoked by the story. As for the blood thirsty beasts, what are they? Are they real? Are they spiritual? Are they metaphorical? Are they death? Are they to claim a soul that has not fully repented for any sins or learnt any lessons?
This is a well crafted film, technically, even if the story cannot support the topics raised. The characterisation could have been handled better, and the some of the aspects are too textbook in their evocation of squalor. There is a degree of sentimentality that is embraced here that does not necessarily feel deserved either. Perhaps not the masterpiece that the awards lavished upon it imply, this is still a confident first feature, showing plenty of promise. It will be interesting to see how Zeitlin handles that difficult second album.
If you like this, try this: The Road (2010) – Viggo Mortensen traverses the planet with his son, in a grey, broken down world. Not perfect either but atmospheric and with haunting touches.
You can see the trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild here: