Borne on the bayou

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

SINCE it was launched at Sun­dance ear­lier this year, Beasts of the South­ern Wild has taken the film fes­ti­val world by storm, in­clud­ing win­ning the Cam­era d’Or (best first fea­ture) award in Cannes. This isn’t sur­pris­ing given that Benh Zeitlin’s film is like noth­ing you’ve seen be­fore. It’s a con­tem­po­rary fan­tasy of sorts, set in a world that’s part make-be­lieve, part for­bid­dingly real, and it con­tains one of those sublime per­for­mances by a child ac­tor that comes along ev­ery few years.

The set­ting is the Bath­tub, a fic­tional area of small is­lands and lev­ees lo­cated off the coast of Louisiana; the peo­ple who live in the Bath­tub are des­per­ately poor, their homes are ram­shackle con­struc­tions made of de­tri­tus gath­ered from var­i­ous sources, and they live in a con­stant state of fear — fear that na­ture will de­stroy them or, just as bad, that wellmean­ing but in­sen­si­tive au­thor­i­ties will drive them away from the place they call home. Not far away, oil re­finer­ies pump pol­lu­tion into the wa­ter, pol­lu­tion that is grad­u­ally killing the fish and crus­taceans on which the peo­ple who live here sur­vive.

This pri­mal set­ting is the home to six-yearold Hush­puppy, played with a pitch-per­fect blend of cock­i­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity by the re­mark­able Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis, a na­tive of the area who was five when she was cast in the role. Hush­puppy lives with her fa­ther, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a ram­shackle house wedged into the side of a tree. A bat­tered ute makes do for a boat in which fa­ther and daugh­ter move around this com­plex sys­tem of wa­ter­ways. Hush­puppy’s mother ‘‘ swam away’’ years be­fore and Wink is se­ri­ously ill; he is de­ter­mined to pass on to his daugh­ter the life lessons she’ll need to sur­vive af­ter he’s gone, and she’s quick as a whip, eagerly di­gest­ing ev­ery­thing he has to tell her — though she’s only a kid and makes mis­takes, such as blow­ing up part of their house in her at­tempts at cook­ing.

This is such a primeval en­vi­ron­ment that you have to keep re­mind­ing your­self that the city of New Orleans is just across the wa­ter, though no­body who lives in the Bath­tub shows any in­cli­na­tion to go there. To make life for the peo­ple who love this place even more dif­fi­cult, there are fore­casts that a mighty storm is com­ing, per­haps a ref­er­ence to Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, though the film was made long af­ter that dis­as­ter dev­as­tated the area.

At the core of the film is the fa­ther-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship, all the more re­mark­able in that nei­ther Wal­lis nor Henry had acted be­fore

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✩ (Henry is a baker whose bread and cake shop, the But­ter­milk Drop, was vis­ited reg­u­larly by Zeitlin and his cast­ing di­rec­tor be­fore they had the idea that the guy who baked the bread might play the lead male role in their movie.)

This pre­vi­ously un­ex­plored world of wa­ter and swampy marsh­land comes vividly alive in the film. Zeitlin stud­ied film in Prague with the great Jan Svankma­jer, and also claims John Cas­savetes, Mike Leigh and Emir Kus­turica among his in­flu­ences. No won­der he has come up with a vi­sion un­like any­thing we’ve seen be­fore.

There are a cou­ple of draw­backs that pre­vent Beasts of the South­ern Wild from be­ing a ma­jor film ex­pe­ri­ence. With the ad­vanc­ing storm and Wink’s de­clin­ing health al­ready cre­at­ing a mood of ten­sion it was surely un­nec­es­sary to vi­su­alise the mon­sters that seem­ingly haunt Hush­puppy, the lit­eral beasts of the film’s ti­tle. These are au­rochs, gi­ant pre­his­toric an­i­mals that look like fear­some boars with their prom­i­nent tusks and threat­en­ing dis­po­si­tion; I’m not sure the film needed them.

And I wish Zeitlin had con­trolled the cam­er­a­work by Ben Richard­son a great deal more. It would have been un­der­stand­able to use jerky hand-held cam­era in cer­tain scenes but the en­tire film is shot this way. Its im­pact is re­duced as a re­sult. THIRTY-SEVEN years ago Steven Spiel­berg’s Jaws ter­ri­fied beach lovers the world over with its spine-chill­ing de­pic­tion of the lethal at­tacks made on un­sus­pect­ing swimmers by an un­usu­ally large great white shark. The film spawned count­less se­quels and rip-offs, the lat­est of which is the home-grown Bait, a crafty shocker set in a Queens­land coastal re­sort dev­as­tated by a tsunami. It’s safe to say that if Spiel­berg had had ac­cess to to­day’s tech­nol­ogy, Jaws would have been even more ter­ri­fy­ing than it was. Bait has that tech­nol­ogy, and 3-D, but is a lesser film be­cause the char­ac­ters and di­a­logue fall well short.

Bait is a B movie and there’s noth­ing wrong with that; some of my favourite films are B movies. In­deed the screen­play, by Rus­sell Mulc­ahy (who orig­i­nally planned to di­rect it him­self) and John Kim, sets out to have fun with the genre.

There’s a bunch of stan­dard char­ac­ters, start­ing with life­saver Josh (Xavier Sa­muel), who is dev­as­tated by the death-by-shark of his best mate, Rory (Richard Bran­cati­sano), who is also the brother of Josh’s girl­friend, Tina (Sharni Vin­son). Some time later Josh is wast­ing his life work­ing as a shelf-filler in a su­per­mar­ket man­aged by Jes­sup (Adrian Pang) when Tina shows up af­ter spend­ing time in Sin­ga­pore, ac­com­pa­nied by hand­some Steven (Qi Yuwu). Then a cou­ple of gun­men, one masked, at­tack the store and kill a fe­male cus­tomer — just as the tsunami hits.

The unmasked gun­man is Doyle (Ju­lian McMa­hon), who’s not re­ally a bad guy, but who is the other, the re­ally bad guy? Did he sur­vive or did he just re­move his mask? And what about the heav­ily tat­tooed loud­mouth played, with min­i­mal sub­tlety, by Dan Wyl­lie? Did I for­get the pres­ence of shoplifter Jaimie (Phoebe Tonkin), the daugh­ter of se­cu­rity guard Todd (Martin Sacks)?

As the wa­ters rise and the sur­vivors take to the high­est shelves, it be­comes clear that a very hun­gry shark has rid­den the wave into the store. From here on you can play the game guess­ing who will be the next vic­tim and who will sur­vive to the end. (Cu­ri­ously, given that this is the first Aus­tralian-Sin­ga­pore co­pro­duc­tion, the Asian char­ac­ters get very short shrift.)

Di­rec­tor Kim­ble Ren­dall, an ex­pe­ri­enced and tal­ented sec­ond-unit di­rec­tor with one pre­vi­ous fea­ture — Cut (2000) with Kylie Minogue — to his credit, pulls off one or two very ef­fec­tive shocks, and gen­er­ally keeps the ten­sion bub­bling de­spite the corny di­a­logue and some ac­tors who look as if they wished they were else­where (and who can blame them — it hardly looks like a com­fort­able shoot).

The Amer­i­can ac­cents adopted by sev­eral of these Queens­lan­ders are a bit be­wil­der­ing, but the sharks look pretty con­vinc­ing and the film de­liv­ers the req­ui­site mo­ments that make you jump in your seat. The 3-D process, for once, adds to the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis is sublime as Hush­puppy

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