Monday, July 09, 2012

"Beasts of the Southern Wild": a lower Louisiana delta community is the "canary" for all of us

Beasts of the Southern Wild”, winner of the Grand Jury drama prize at Sundance and also a winner at Cannes, is part fantasy (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, maybe), and part NatGeo drama that seems to be inspired by Hurricane Katrina.  The film, directed  (and largely written) by Benh Zeitlin is one of those cinema experiences that inserts us in another world and makes us live through its hardships and personal attachments.  It is uneven, curious, unsettling, and powerful, all at the same time.  People in some communities have no choice as to how they will live and as to the human attachments they must form and maintain (that is, “social capital” is essential to their survival).

Hushpuppy (Quevenzhane Wallis) is a precocious (African American) six year old living in ramshackle community  (“The Bathtub”) in lower Louisiana, in a part of the Delta already partly washed away by dredging and threatened by rising sea levels.  She has accumulated some book learning about global warming, Al Gore style, and already imagines melting ice caps.  She has learned to cook, rather recklessly with the primitive gas stoves in the family’s mobile home. One day, she accidentally sets the house on fire, and her mother disappears.  Her father Wink (Dwight Henry) gives her tough love as she seeks mom in a growing maelstrom.  A storm, possibly like Katrina, comes and floods everyone out.  Everyone resists the government’s effort to rescue them and make them stay in approved shelters (in sight of the oil refineries).  The film makes reference to levies and possible deliberate flooding of their homeland to appease oil companies, shipping channels and big cities (New Orleans). But other mysteries are unfolding. Ancient oxen-like boars called aurochs run amok and do more devastation (like tearing down remaining power lines), but seem to like Hushpuppy.  Wink falls ill, vomiting blood, and  has been teaching Hushpuppy to survive completely on her own, nabbing catfish with her bare hands (as in another 2001 indie film called “Okie Noodling", directed by Bradley Beesley, sometimes shown on PBS).

There’s a touching rescue scene, in the middle, where a woman tells Hushpuppy, “You have to learn to take care of people weaker and sweeter than you.”  It seems odd that everyone pressures Hushpuppy to be dependable when she really seems to be pretty good at doing things (despite the accident).

Is this film a warning of how “the purification” could start?

The music is by Dan Romer and the director and is riveting.

On YouTube, the young director (writer and composer) explains how he developed the film at Sundance Institute, and how he had to rework the story in accordance with the non-actors that he found.  Hushpuppy wound up being younger than he had originally expected (he had imagined someone about 11).  He says the Institute puts every idea in your script under a microscope.  The end credits mentioned  a “substitute teacher” rather than “studio teacher”.

The official site from Fox Searchlight is here.

I saw the film in a small auditorium at Landmark E Street in Washington DC before a fair crowd on a Monday afternoon. 

Picture: Mississippi Gulf Coast, my picture, Feb. 2006. 

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