Monday, July 16, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Alternate Title:  The Magical World of Global Warming

One sentence synopsis:    A young girl and her father deal with hurricanes, forced evictions, and man-eating aurochs in their strange Louisiana community.

Things Havoc liked:  So... there's this little girl.

Her name is Quvenzhané Wallis. She is currently nine years old. When she was five, a couple of filmmakers named Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar picked her to star in an independent film adaptation of Alibar's one-act play about a girl and her father living in what I take to be the Mississippi delta. She looks between six and seven or so at time of filming, though I'm a terrible judge of these things, and frankly, she's the best actor in the movie. She plays Hushpuppy, a dynamo of stubborn wilfulness, living in a strange community called the "Bathtub" on the ocean side of an immense levy with her father and a gaggle of fellow lunatics, adult and child alike. Fearless (and serious) to the point of self-destructiveness, Wallis delivers an incredibly good (and at times surprisingly restrained) performance, never veering at all into cutseyness. She talks to animals and her absent mother, stares down gigantic carnivorous beasts, and talks back to her drunk, half-mad father, not out of precocity but from that self-evident consistent-yet-alien worldview that small children are able to conjure forth. She imagines the world to behave naturally in a given way, and thus for her it does. When she lights her trailer on fire and hides from the flames inside a cardboard box, we understand immediately her thought process, all from her actions and expression. She also evidences the terrible, biting cruelty that children can unleash when frustrated or angered, at one point telling her father, whom she loves and who loves her, that when he dies she will go to his grave and eat birthday cake upon it.

And speaking of her father (played by Dwight Henry), Wink is one of the weirder father-figures I've ever seen in a film. Terminally ill with some unspecified cancer-like disease, constantly drunk and sometimes even physically violent, Wink is nevertheless neither a villain nor a pitiable figure to be "redeemed" by Wallis. He seems to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, (at one point exploding over the proper method of shelling a crab), and yet because his daughter is both equally energized and totally unafraid of him, the result is all over the map. They fight, throwing mutual tantrums and competing to see who can make more of a mess. They argue, occasionally bitterly and painfully, as Wink attempts despite himself to do what he thinks is best for his daughter, who steadfastly refuses to have anything done for her (except of course when she doesn't). He tells her stories and shows her how to catch a fish with bare hands, even as hurricanes blow and levies explode. And yet despite everything, the sum total of their interactions feels more real than almost any other film I can conjure to mind. Hushpuppy seems to take her father's 'oddities' as simply another piece in a world that, to her, is entirely consistent, just as she does that of her crazy teacher, crazy neighbors, or the crazy things that happen over the course of the film.

Things Havoc disliked:   And what crazy things these are. This is a film in which global warming touches off the thawing out of antarctic Aurochs, who become carnivorous and stampede towards Louisiana (?) for a confrontation with our heroes. Believe it or not, that is a minor subplot of everything that's going on.

Ultimately though, that's really the problem. This movie has no "plot", so to speak, but is simply, to quote Roger Ebert, a series of events that happen. When the hurricane comes and floods the Bathtub, there is an elaborate sequence involving an alligator carcass, bottles of gasoline, explosives, a detonator, and power boats that culminates in Hushpuppy blowing a hole through a levy to drain the Bathtub. Yet once she does this, the movie seemingly abandons the whole thing in favor of another Terrence Malik-inspired mediation on the transitory nature of life, or something similar. There are occasional hints back to the fact that busting open the levy probably led to X and Y, further down the line, but no real sense to collect all of this together into a story. In choosing this mechanism, the filmmakers are probably trying to capture the world through the eyes of a particularly clever six-year-old, but it results in a lot of questions by the audience going unanswered.

For instance, the movie posits the return of the Aurochs, here presented as gigantic boars wearing mammoth hide who are apparently carnivorous and the size of buses. Leaving aside the question of how they get from Antarctica to Louisiana, the base fact is that Aurochs were not pigs but cows. Yes, the title character has never seen an Auroch (or for that matter a cow) and therefore probably imagines them in whatever form she's familiar with, I get that. But this is sort of like presenting a flying bear as a dragon and expecting the audience to infer who is making the proper mistake. If any creature would do, why borrow the Auroch (a European animal) for a story set in Louisiana? Do folk-tales in the Bayou typically revolve around creatures that never lived in this hemisphere?

The above may sound like a nitpick (though given the amount of time the movie spends building up the Aurochs, it's not), but it leads to the main issue. A movie like this, which glosses over a more structured plot in favor of transporting us into the mindset of a small child, can only work if the adult part of our brain does not constantly barge in with obvious questions about what the hell is going on. And given the goings on of this film, that's exactly what was constantly happening to me, particularly when the movie was concentrating on its favorite theme of contrasting the joyous life of the denizens of the Bathtub with the sterile, artificial life of the rest of us. I couldn't help but sit there wondering where this small (though scrupulously racially diverse) community of subsistence fishers and scavengers got the fireworks, gasoline, dynamite, and ammunition with which they appeared to be plentifully supplied. How exactly was it that the security guards at the evacuation hospital that these denizens are sent to seem to vanish whenever the plot does not wish them to be there. Where exactly did the rest of the children in the Bathtub come from, and what were all of them doing when Hushpuppy decided to swim off to the floating whorehouse in search of her mother (yes, it's that sort of film). I understand that the theme of the movie is that civilization is evil and poor people are pure, but surely the government would take exception to a bunch of armed lunatics abducting orphaned children from a hospital and taking them back to a disaster zone?

Final thoughts:  I know, I know, I'm not supposed to ask those questions, not in a film like this, which is more or less about the relationship between Hushpuppy and her father, but I couldn't help it. The movie, which had an excellent thing going with those two characters, continuously jumped around, gesturing wildly at topics as varied as global warming, the inhumanity of modern medicine, and giant carnivorous pigs, only coming back to the central core of the story whenever it felt like it. There's only so much digression I can tolerate as a moviegoer before I start to ask uncomfortable questions about what the hell is going on, especially when the film itself invites these questions by bringing up the topics.

I took a chance on this movie because it had, and I'm not kidding about this, the most positive reviews I'd ever seen. Of the major critics that reviewed this film on Metacritic, fully half of them gave it 4/4 or 5/5 star perfect reviews, praising it in immoderate terms and calling for awards and Oscar statuettes to be heaped upon it. I try not to inundate myself with reviews before seeing a film, but with indie films it's sometimes the only way to spot a potential winner amidst the dross. And while I didn't hate this movie at all, I simply do not understand what all these people think they saw. The core of this film is built around an excellent, and perhaps even moving dynamic. But try as they might, the filmmakers were simply unable to disguise the fact that this story, like many children's stories, just doesn't make sense in the cold, unfeeling light of day.

Final Score:  6/10

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