Child’s eye view on tough times

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - NEWS -

NLY once in a great while does some­thing as ut­terly dis­tinc­tive and cap­ti­vat­ing as Benh Zeitlin’s in­de­pen­dent fea­ture Beasts of the South­ern Wild come along like a breath of fresh air.

The film pre­miered at Sun­dance, where it ar­rived with zero ad­vance hype and left with a well-de­served Grand Jury Prize win and an award for Ben Richard­son’s ex­tra­or­di­nary 16mm cin­e­matog­ra­phy.

The best rea­son to wade into this (let’s be hon­est) chal­leng­ing but hugely re­ward­ing film is Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis – a six-year-old with no act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at the time of film­ing. Un­for­get­table as the film’s fierce young pro­tag­o­nist, she pro­vides nar­ra­tion that doesn’t ex­actly walk view­ers through the shock­ingly im­pov­er­ished mi­lieu this un­usual movie pretty much throws you into.

Hush­puppy and her mostly ine­bri­ated fa­ther Wink (Dwight Henry) live in ad­join­ing, junk-filled shacks in a ram­shackle Louisiana Delta community cut off from New Orleans, and the world, by an enor­mous levee.

Wink, who knows he is dy­ing, has been pre­par­ing Hush­puppy – who he of­ten ad­dresses as ‘‘boss’’ and ‘‘man’’ – to sur­vive on her own, since her mother ‘‘swam away’’, as the young­ster puts it.

Beasts was adapted from a play – by Zeitlin and the orig­i­nal au­thor, Lucy Alibar – but it’s hard to imag­ine any­thing this cin­e­matic and or­gan­i­cally rooted in a spe­cific lo­cale tak­ing place on a stage.

One key con­cept car­ried over was pre­his­toric beasts freed from their icy graves by global warm­ing, which serve as a har­bin­ger of doom for Hush­puppy and Wink’s tiny, fic­tional community, known only as The Bath­tub – it­self an al­le­gor­i­cal stand-in for preKa­t­rina New Orleans.

Movies that mix magic and gritty re­al­ism al­most never work, but Zeitlin, in an aus­pi­cious fea­ture di­rect­ing de­but, pulls it off with awe­some re­sults (and the help of ex­tremely im­pres­sive spe­cial ef­fects for a film that cost about $1 mil­lion).

A flood swamps this im­pov­er­ished but vi­brant community, whose mem­bers float in im­pro­vised boats wait­ing for the wa­ters to re­cede – only to be herded into an emer­gency shel­ter when they do.

By this point, Wink’s de­clin­ing con­di­tion has forced Hush­puppy to take full charge, which she does in ways that are im­mensely mov­ing and in­spir­ing.

Henry strikes just the right note as the gruff Wink, whose fa­ther­ing style might be la­beled bor­der­line abu­sive in a more fa­mil­iar con­text.

Gina Mon­tana, an­other stand­out in the locally re­cruited cast of non­pro­fes­sional ac­tors, pro­vides a cru­cial con­trast as Miss Bathsheba, a teacher, medicine woman and sur­ro­gate mother to Hush­puppy.

It’s the ef­fort­lessly charis­matic Wal­lis who de­serves a Best Ac­tress Os­car nom­i­na­tion, at the very least, for the most com­mand­ing ju­ve­nile per­for­mance since Keisha Cas­tle-Hughes re­ceived a nod for Whale Rider nearly a decade ago.

Beasts of the South­ern Wild, whose mood is en­hanced with Ca­jun-style mu­sic, has been com­pared by some to Ter­rence Mal­ick’s The Tree of Life be­cause of its in­tox­i­cat­ing vi­su­als and the pres­ence of pre­his­toric beasts in both films.

That’s meant as a com­pli­ment, but Zeitlin’s film isn’t afraid to tug at your heart­strings in a way the coolly cere­bral Mal­ick prob­a­bly never would.

opens to­day.

Di­rec­tor Benh Zeitlin and Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis on the set of

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