The summer’s most spectacular film is one you can’t see on IMAX screens or through 3D goggles
Needless to say, this summer has really disappointed me, movie-wise. From truly atrocious, aimless warm-overs like “Madea’s Witness Protection” and “The Raven” to the hyper-overrated juvenilia like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Men in Black 3,” there really hasn’t been all that much to crow about at the box office over the last three months. When the highlights for moviegoers thus far have been flicks about misconceptions surrounding Arabian culture and the potentiality of creationism, you KNOW it’s been a particularly weak season for Hollywood.
And - as almost always the case - it took one intrepid filmmaker, with a literally vacant resume - to save us from what, otherwise, would have been one of the most disappointing summer movie seasons in recent memory.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a film that I only heard slivers about. From what I pieced together from a few reviews and the trailer, the movie was something along the lines of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” albeit with Hurricane Katrina as its backdrop as opposed to Franco-era Spain. Going into the film, I really didn’t know what to expect. Walking out, I was convinced that I had just witnessed something magical, a rare cinematic event that reaffirmed my faith in the motion picture industry. Very, very rarely do films of the like get released, let alone widely distributed - like “Toy Story 3” two years ago and last year’s “A Separation,” this is an absolutely riveting film that nails you with the emotional force of a typhoon. And alike those films, this is an outstanding work of artistry that you can - and quite honestly, SHOULD - take your children to go see. I assure you, whatever difficult discussions that may arise after the movie are certainly more beneficial for your child’s intellectual development than if you were to take them to see some brain-rotting, pandering dreck like “Spider-Man” or “Ice Age,” most definitely.
Although there’s still six months left on the calendar, I highly doubt a better movie will be released this year than “Beasts.” The film is an absolute lock for a Best Picture nod, and I can think of almost a half dozen other areas where the film absolutely SHOULD take home an Oscar.
It’s amazing to me that, in an industry tailored to fit IMAX screens and 3D glasses, the most beautiful looking and sounding film of the year eschews all of the novelty hooks that have become prerequisites for summer blockbusters. From the very first scene of the film - in which a six year old rummages through the jungle-like environs of Louisiana - it’s clear the cinematographer Ben Richardson is practically guaranteed an Oscar for his work in this film. There are close-up shots of crabs wriggling around, and mealworms crawling through hornet nests, and even a scene in which a lake dries up, revealing mushy mounds of discarded junk and broken tree branches. The world shown to us in “Beasts” is so wonderfully ugly and devoid of gloss and splendor, so naturalistic and unsullied by technological tricks that even rusted huts and filthy kitchen sinks pop and crackle as visual delights. It takes an extraordinarily talented person to make locales so dirty and grungy appear so lively and majestic; a feat, to me, that is worth more than all of the CGI effects in the year’s multi-million (and multi-billion earning) superhero movies combined.
“Beasts” is an absolutely stellar looking film, and it sounds just as spectacular. The audio editing is downright tremendous (without having to resort to eardrum-rupturing crashes, clanks and explosions), with a positively amazing original score produced by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin - the latter being the film’s director. Amazingly, this is Zeitlin’s first directorial undertaking, and he additionally shares screenplay credit with Lucy Alibar. And if Zeitlin doesn’t find himself taking home Academy Awards for all three of his roles in the film’s production, I’d consider it a downright travesty of justice.
Technically, “Beasts” is a remarkable film, but that’s not necessarily what it makes it such a fantastic movie-going experience. That, I suppose, can be attributed in part to its stellar, wholly unique storyline and presentation - directed with staggering bravado and sure-handedness, despite the “greenness” of its helmer - and the powerful performances turned in by the - largely, amateur- cast.
Quvenzhane Wallis is a virtual no-name at this point, but something tells me it’s a name we are all going to be quite familiar with come Oscar season. The nine-year-old actress isn’t just guaranteed a best actress nomination for her performance in this film, there is a very strong likelihood that the 9-year-old may become the youngest Academy Award winner in history next spring. As fantastic as her performance is - and this is quite the testament to “Beasts” - it’s perhaps not even the strongest acting on display in the movie. That honor would go to Dwight Henry - a baker in “real life” with virtually zero acting experience - who puts on a clinic as a single father with a terminal blood disease. If he gets slighted by the Academy (which, let’s face it, he probably will), it would be an absolute disgrace, fundamentally a repeat of “Hoop Dreams” not even getting nominated for Best Documentary back in 1994.
Zeitlin’s film reminded me a great deal of the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Scandinavian artisan whose films used repetition, sensatory provocation and a synthesis of documentary style and the fantastical to create a dreamlike world that - despite its illusory visuals - never felt like it happened “beyond” the realm of human experiences. In that, it’s somewhat comparable to “Pan’s Labyrinth,” although I would say “Beasts” is much more in line with a Tim Burton film - albeit, “Beasts” is a movie that absolutely outshines anything in the oeuvre of the “Hot Topic” crowd’s favorite director by oceanic margins.
It’s difficult to accurately synopsize the film, because so much of the plot is expressed -as opposed to told - to us. Even in the film’s darker moments, it retains this childlike sense of wonder and hope, a naïve spirit that is simultaneously uplifting and disheartening. People that view the trailer may wonder how a film about post-Katrina life in New Orleans could possibly entail plot points about climate change and prehistoric beasts, and that’s precisely the point. I could tell you how those aspects tie into the greater narrative of the film, but it wouldn’t exactly explain it to you, either. Alike “The Spirit of the Beehive,” or “The Tin Drum,” this is an aesthetically-driven film that no second-hand account could properly recreate.
“Beasts,” topically, seems like the kind of film that would fall into the trappings of melodrama. Early on in the film, we assume the father of the main character is a violent, loveless, abusive, alcoholic…as is the case in so many films about growing up in poverty. While the film doesn’t exactly go out of its way to paint him as a more compassionate figure, over the course of the film, we come to understand his actions and behaviors, as the character morphs from what could have been a trite stereotype into the literal heart of the motion picture.
“Beasts,” at the end of the day, is a movie about simplicity. The culture celebrated in “Beasts” is a rather simple one, a society of impoverished whites and blacks that live in a makeshift community endlessly destroyed and rebuilt after floods. The film isn’t exactly celebrating their vices and rejection of modernity, but it at least gets us to understand their ways of life, and especially their sense of community.
There is a fantastic scene in which the denizens of the bayou community wind up in a FEMA-hospital, where everything is white, and lifeless and sterile. The main character, who is clad in dirty clothes throughout the duration of the film, is suddenly clad in grey, drab school clothing, with her hair tied back in the usual schoolmarm style. The background blurs out, as she just stares at the platoon of sick old men, resting in beds, with their noses hooked up to oxygen machines. It’s a virtually dialogue-less scene, but one that has untold emotional impact. A later scene, in which the main character and her friends run from a thundering herd of aurochs, seems to tie directly into what we saw in the hospital - the inevitability of weakness, the inevitability of failing health, and the inevitability of what we once knew slipping away, chasing us down like lesser animals.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” ultimately, is a film about confronting reality - that is, eschewing the fantastical and the escapist whimsy and staring down our own frailties, our own mortality, and finally, what makes us living, human beings. Films of the like are becoming increasingly rarer in this day and age - and certainly, uncovering a “Beast” this rare is well worth treasuring.
My Score: A+