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Hurricane Katrina was as devastating of a natural disaster that this country actually remembers, in part because of how well documented it was. There were numerous newspaper/magazine features written, there was constant aerial news coverage, even Spike Lee since then has created two documentaries about the tragedy. However, up until this point, nobody has made anything like “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” directed by Benh Zeitlin and written by him and Lucy Alibar - adapted from Alibar’s one-act play “Juicy and Delicious.”
Not one soul has been audacious enough to present the tragedy as it happened to the people who got the least relief and to show it in non-documentary fantasy drama form. Rarely did you ever hear about the condition of those people that weren’t directly within the New Orleans city limits, those who lived closer to the ocean in much more rural areas – in the southern American wild.
The title “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” seems so inappropriate upon first comprehension of how the story relates to the title. It may seem racist or even degrading upon first recognition, but Zeitlin is just describing humans as we relate to the rest of the world; we are just beasts among many beasts.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a beast in the form of a human. At six years old, she lives in a Louisiana delta community with her single, dying father where the word sanitization ceased to exist many years ago – if it ever existed at all. Within her, the film’s narrator, a true heroine exists. “Beasts” follows Hushpuppy’s life before and after the hurricane as she searches for a meaning in life, amidst some colorful and joyous but certainly deprived characters from the Bayou who gather as if every day is a holiday even when the world seems to be drowning around them.
The realistic sets really add a lot to an already miraculous film. If not for the bottled beer and engines attached to the bed of pick-up trucks to create makeshift boats that provide us with a sign of the era, this community would certainly seem timeless. Zeitlin and his crew clearly did some serious scouting to find areas to make this film look as realistic as possible.
Personally, I have never seen a film so delicately handle the idea that childhood innocence eventually dies; that growing up and learning the true cruel ways of the world is inevitable and unavoidable. Nobody has ever brought to the table this kind of coming-of-age character in such a destructively new-age drama. The empathy with which Hushpuppy deals with her chaotic environment is emblematic of an almost saintly figure. She understands all the beasts of the natural world. She understands how everything in nature is connected and certainly the concept of survival of the fittest, at one point stating that although she’d be sad if she ate her pets, she may have to do it if her father doesn’t come back soon enough with other food.
This may sound like a movie from Terrance Malick, but never in his films (even "Days Of Heaven") has he featured protagonists as likeable and visibly strong as 6 year-old Hushpuppy. She is symbolic of the fact that, to kids, growing up is all they can ever wish for. Like learning to fish with your hands and cook, responsibilities and a meaning in life are all children ever want living amongst an irresponsible single father and his compadres.
“Beasts Of The Southern Wild” is a peculiar illustration of what one must go through and what one must do to survive as a beast in the wild, reminding us that we all do live in completely different environments amidst different wildernesses. Hushpuppy ranks up there with the greatest heroines to ever exist in film. This is a remarkable feat for Zeitlin, his first feature film that carries a magnificent score and stunning cinematography. I recommend this heartfelt tearjerker that premiered at Sundance, winning the Camera d’Or, to anyone and everyone.
P.S. Move over, “Moonrise Kingdom.” I no longer consider you the best film of 2012.
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