As I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin’s mystical, philosophical sojourn in the “Bathtub,” a fictional bayou settlement in southern Louisiana, I had two reactions: 1) I thought, this is the kind of film that sheltered, privileged city-dwellers probably love, because it allows them to spy on and empathize with rural “little people” for a brisk 90 minutes or so; 2) I thought, this is the kind of film that residents of the Bathtub — if they were real and assuming they ever watched movies — would likely detest. There is very little plot, lots of mumbo jumbo about man’s place in the universe, artsy-fartsy photography, and a “can we all get along?” sentimentality.
Oh, and I had a third thought: The people of the Bathtub would make excellent subjects for a documentary on the National Geographic Channel. If nothing else, Beasts is a welcome reminder that, between the coasts, America is many things, none of them apartments on the Upper East Side or cop chases in South L.A.
Young Quvenzhane Wallis, five years old at the time of filming, has been nominated for an Oscar for her starring role as “Hushpuppy,” a spunky Bathtub resident who lives in squalor with her ailing, abusive father. Wallis is very good; she has an expressive face and loads of charm. But Best Actress good? Lord, no. Maggie Smith has nothing to fear. At least not yet.
Not a lot happens to Hushpuppy in this movie. We are voyeurs of her poverty-stricken lifestyle in the heat and humidity of the swamp. But we needn’t worry much about her because, although her drunken father occasionally beats her and her neighbors are all illiterate pigs, these people like each other. And Hushpuppy is wise beyond her years. And the Bathtubians(?) don’t much cotton to encroachment by modern civilization, which threatens their idyllic way of life. So we can thank them for 90 minutes of their time and go back to our apartments and cop chases in South L.A. Grade: C+
Director: Benh Zeitlin Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Amber Henry, Jonshel Alexander Release: 2012
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