Archive for January 10th, 2013

A Writer Reviews: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beats-of-the-southern-wild-movie-posterWith the Oscar nominations announced this morning, I wanted to take some time to talk about movies that I’ve meant to talk about, but haven’t. Two in particular that took home nine nominations between them, including two of the nine Best Picture slots. Today, as you can tell from the subject line and the poster on the right, it’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Tomorrow it’ll be Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy Django Unchained.

Typically these reviews are about pulling out some aspect of the movie or television show and turning it into a lesson for those of us who create visual, rather than produced, fiction. This is a little different. Today, I’d just like to talk about a movie that left me awed when I left the theater, and talk in terms of pure admiration for film craft and production.

There are two massive challenges when crafting a child character for film. First comes the challenge that all writers must face, creating a young voice that is believable, approachable, without turning the audience away with treacle. It’s about capturing innocence or earnestness. It is, perhaps, the most difficult character one can approach. Which is odd, we were all children once, we all have those experiences, but our memories are so clouded by time that it takes a true craftsman to get everything down on page.

Those of us who write for the page wrap it up there. For better or worse, we’ve tried our damnedest, and it’s up to the reader. When producing a television show, or especially a movie, the larger challenge now begins. Now it’s time to find the right kid, that rare child actor who can step up to the duties of carrying a movie, especially one who must carry a movie so thoroughly as Quvenzhan√© Wallis carried Beasts of the Southern Wild, acting as both lead actress and narrator. Really, this is a two-part challenge in itself. You need the actress who can carry a role beyond her years, and the director who can get that performance out of her.

I’m thrilled all three aspects of Hushpuppy’s character landed nominations: the screenplay, the actress, and the director. Add in a nomination for Best Picture, and today is really the day for Beasts of the Southern Wild. And let it have its day, I unfortunately foresee the movie going 0-for-4 on the night of the Oscars itself. So let’s ride the high for this movie, and we can talk about Lincoln and Les Mis another day.

In the broadest strokes, the movie is the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father in a place only every called the Bathtub. Where the Bathtub is doesn’t actually matter, this is a community cut off from the world, figuratively by their customs and spirit, and literally by their existence on the wrong side of a series of levees built to protect the mainland. Through Hushpuppy we experience a storm that is almost, but not quite, Katrina, her father’s illness, a quest to find her mother, and a community trying to hold together when threatened by a nameless government entity that is almost, but not quite, FEMA.

The entire movie plays out through her perspective. We get enough hints to piece together the larger narrative, but not all of it. The movie was billed as fantasy, and that’s what I went in expecting, but the real fantasy element is spending two hours living in the mind of a six-year-old girl. Magical realism comes from her imagination and understandings of the world. Things feel bigger and perspectives shift. It’s a movie that, in each of its moments, will make you cheer for this lifestyle because it’s all Hushpuppy knows. To make you want to get in there and fight everything intended to make her life “better” because that’s not what she wants, and it isn’t what anyone else in the Bathtub wants.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the few movies I’ve seen that I would describe as beautiful. There is not a single element of the movie that pulls at you and says “this is a work of fiction.” This goes right down to the cast, composed entirely of unknown, local, and first-time actors. There’s no known faces to remind you these are people in roles, creating an odd purity of the experience.

Oh man, I’m starting to use phrases like “purity of the experience” when talking about a movie. I better dial this back now. But that’s just what this movie did to me. It’s not one I would typically have seen in theaters, it’s not a movie that I would say is fun to watch by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one I’m very glad that I did watch. While I have low hopes for it capitalizing on any of these nominations next month, I really hope the movie proves me wrong.

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