‘Beasts’ engaging journey between realism, fairy tale

  • Wed Jul 11th, 2012 8:32pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

Existing in a strange place between dark folklore and the realism of news footage, the Bathtub is a watery Louisiana Gulf locale that fills with water during hurricane season. Residents have been told to evacuate, but they’re a stubborn lot. Stubborn, or crazy or drunk.

The Bathtub exists not in reality but in an unusual new indie picture, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which took the Sundance Film Festival by storm earlier this year.

And while the movie itself borrows from a collection of sources, the Bathtub and its people are a highly original lot; this film blows in with something unmistakably new.

Everything we see in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is filtered through the perspective of a 6-year-old inhabitant of the Bathtub, Hushpuppy (played by a determined newcomer, Quvenzhane Wallis). That might account for the fairy-tale magic that seems to mix together with gritty 21st-century realities.

Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a couple of trailers; like most of the residents of the Bathtub, they appear to be content with their poverty, and happy to be isolated from the mainland.

Along with an impending hurricane, Wink’s increasingly hostile attitude toward his daughter forms the main story of the movie, to the extent it has a story.

Director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar create a suitably disorienting design for this very peculiar world, which includes not only various visual discrepancies (those slices of civilization sure look authentic, but why are there giant marauding hogs chasing Hushpuppy?) but also a careful soundtrack.

Our ears are filled with both an unusual, stirring score, and the musings of Hushpuppy’s interior monologue, which may be the busiest, most lyrical kid narration since Linda Manz took to sharing her thoughts in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (this movie owes quite a bit to Malick, I think).

Those words are among the occasional forced notes in this movie’s otherwise dreamy, nearly post-apocalyptic design. I liked the sometimes mysterious mood of “Beasts,” which allows us to imagine how these people got to this place and why on earth they feel compelled to stay there, even if there are moments where the whole concept feels a little too precious.

Fascinating place to visit, though, and to wonder about: How did Wink put together that floating pickup-truck bed, and how does it float, anyway? This imagined world is like that: You experience it without needing to understand exactly what you’re looking at.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild”

A fresh kind of independent film, about a Louisiana community that refuses to leave its hurricane-vulnerable corner of the world. The style is somewhere between realism and fairy tale, and while things occasionally feel forced, the overall effect is mysterious and fascinating.

Rated: PG-13 for violence, subject matter.

Showing: Egyptian.