Friday, March 15, 2013

Multi-Media, March 15, 2013

A Sensory Feast from the Bayou
by Christian Baines

In the lead-up to Oscar night, I approached Beasts of the Southern Wild with little more than a vague knowledge of its four nominations and a fascination with all things Louisiana. The main draw card for many was the performance of Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only five at the time of filming and went on to be the youngest ever nominee for the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film was far more conceptual and less linear than most of its awards rivals, which can probably be traced back to its roots as Lucy Alibar’s one-act stage play, Juicy and Delicious.

But as the film now slides onto home format, admittedly Oscar-less, but with a more than healthy swag of other awards to its name, does it actually hold up beyond Wallis’s  presence and its often stunning visuals? 

Living with her ill, alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in The Bathtub, an isolated community in south-west Louisiana, Hushpuppy finds inspiration in stories, both the ones she is told, and the ones she hopes to leave behind. One such story tells of prehistoric creatures called Aurochs, trapped for centuries within the polar ice caps that are released with the melting of the ice shelves – either in reality or in Hushpuppy’s imagination. There’s little distinction made, and one suspects that’s part of the point as the little girl discovers the power to create her own story as she goes. Power to stand up to her father, power to find her much talked about mother, and power to find optimism in the face of a storm that devastates her community.

This can make the film’s opening 20 minutes tough going. 

On the surface, one gets the sense of an attempt to preach about the effects of climate change on impoverished, hurricane-prone communities. This can make the film’s opening 20 minutes tough going. But it’s the story’s emphasis on Hushpuppy and her father that carries its weight. The charismatic Wallis embodies the strong, bold African American matriarch in her mother’s absence with a performance that puts her far beyond some mere ‘plucky child’ archetype. There’s also a raw authenticity to her chemistry with Henry that is often uncomfortable to watch, particularly when Wink’s attempts to comfort or lift his daughter’s spirits veer startlingly close to abuse (drunkenly ‘scaring off’ storm clouds with a shotgun comes to mind). The fact that neither Wallace nor Henry had any prior acting experience or training only heightened buzz surrounding the film, and rightly so, for both are phenomenal. 

Visually, director Benh Zetilin has created a bright, colourful canvas for Alibar’s concepts to play on, realizing Hushpuppy and Wink’s bayou home and the bleak, yet eerily beautiful world that surrounds it in exquisite detail. And this ultimately is what makes Beasts of the Southern Wild such a satisfying film, if not an immediately arresting one. It’s a triumph of authentic performance, coupled to awesome, often fantastical visions.

Did it deserve a greater showing at the industry’s night of nights? Perhaps the same uniqueness that earned it such praise is responsible for its being shut out. But as either the dark horse of awards season or a feast of originality and imagination, it’s inspired filmmaking.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

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