The award-winning darling of both Sundance and Cannes, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” had its first LRFF screening last night. The film is an hour and a half long. It seemed a lot longer. It’s a dense, ambitious epic, set in a swampy downtrodden utopia known as The Bathtub and starring six-year-old Quvenzhane “Nazie” Wallis as Hushpuppy, the half-feral bayou child. She’s confident, intuitive and absolutely convincing. The other standout is the art direction, which manages suburb tasks on a budget of under two million (some of which is a grant from the Sundance Institute).
A stand-in for the Ninth Ward and other invisible, institutionally disenfranchised communities, The Bathtub is populated by crocodiles, overgrown fish, goats, chickens, mutts, drunks, shaman and children. Everyone lives on his or her own terms. Freedom is what matters, tiny things are marvelous, and life is rowdy. But beyond The Bathtub there’s global warming and rising sea levels, and as Hushpuppy repeatedly reminds us, the whole universe is connected.
A legendary storm comes. It kills the animals, and The Bathtub is underwater. Afterwards, those who didn’t leave for life beyond the levee (where fish are trapped in plastic and babies are trapped in carriages) must live together in boats and a floating schoolhouse shack. They must learn to survive – especially Hushpuppy, because her mama ran off and her daddy is dying of some mysterious blood ailment.
Many films celebrate or portray life on the fringes, but this film pushes those fringes to mythical proportions. These people are utterly isolated, and yet, they are never alone. They have the whole universe. They have universes within the universe. They have their own gypsy-refuse Mardi Gras whenever they feel like it. They have occasional contact with other fringe-dwellers, in fantastic places such as floating saloons, where a goddess-cum-waitress, who might just be your long-lost mama, fries up the best alligator you ever tasted and then dances with you all night long. They have fireworks and arm-wrestling and always, plenty of beer and moonshine. It’s eerie and gorgeous. It’s the squatters’ New Orleans, the pirated, hobo underbelly of the tourist city. It’s prehistoric art on cardboard caves and made-for-TV Viking lore. Like the best fairy-tales, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is both familiar and disconcerting.
The film takes some effort to absorb. Its strength is in impressions, but these impressions are layered, and the scenes are laden with archetype and narrative. Combined with the emotional score, it all became a poetic wash, catapulting your psyche in a hundred unbidden directions at once and dredging up “everything that made me,” to quote Hushpuppy. This is what I most appreciated about the film, but it’s also what I found problematic. At times, it all seemed a little self-conscious. Sometimes you’re more aware of the artiness, craft and ambition than you are engaged by the characters and their lives.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” shows today, Friday, at Riverdale at 4:15 p.m.