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Blu-ray Review: Beasts Of The Southern Wild

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Beasts of the Southern Wild is the debut feature film of writer/director Benh Zeitlin. Starring local talent from the south Louisiana basin, the story recounts how one community deals with the aftermath of a catastrophic flood. The film won the Camera d’Or (best first film) at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival as well as the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

The Movie

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in an area called “The Bathtub,” a low-lying island region south of the New Orleans levees. The two have a complicated relationship, each living in their own ramshackle home sourced from found parts. In fact, the entire region gives the impression of being cobbled together from things discarded and overlooked, rough-hewn and lying in the shadow of another world.

Hushpuppy spends her days exploring her surroundings, playing with the animals on their land and attending class with the other children. Wink loves his daughter, but has a difficult time showing it, and is unfortunately prone to violent parenting. When he’s not off doing his own thing, he relates to her by trying to toughen her up. Most of the residents of The Bathtub seem to view life as hard, and the sooner you become hard with it, the easier things will be for you. This parenting style doesn’t change when we discover that Wink is terminally ill, and in fact he almost seems to push Hushpuppy away from him in order to speed up her independence.

It is in this setting that the storms come. A cataclysmic flood ravages the region, and the few who remain — whether too proud or stubborn to leave — are left to piece back together what remains of their home.

Hushpuppy sees all of this change and calamity around her and can’t help but think of the story her teacher told her about the aurochs, mythical beasts who used to roam the land. She sees herself as somehow involved in the calamitous events happening around her, but also begins to connect to a primal strength she imagines is rushing into her world.

The story is easier to recount than it is to convey. Depicting this group as New Orleans flood victims would be too easy and wouldn’t even begin to paint them accurately. Hushpuppy narrates the story and is able to philosophize its meaning beyond her years.

It’s as if Terrance Malick chose to plant himself in the flood plains for a season, in order to weave a poetic story of harsh beauty. The story is often long on visual wonder and brief with words, as actions and expressions and lines on faces say as much as the characters’ words ever do. Hushpuppy’s adventure rocks back and forth between childlike wonder and the grim reality of her surroundings, with the fantasy element somehow coming in to bind the two halves together.

One of the most interesting things about the film is that it is beautiful and moving without being sentimental. In fact, most of the events don’t go down smoothly. Hushpuppy seems to be forever asked to forsake her childhood in order to tend to the blunt force of the non-magical circumstances around her. There are parenting moments that are regrettable; there are moments of racial and class tension that are out of step with normal children’s tales.

The people of The Bathtub are not innocents; their situation is something they have chosen (their sense of how others across the levees view them is more likely influenced by how they in turn have chosen to view those others). But in amongst all of the messy debris and remains of life, both the inhabitants of the bathtub and Hushpuppy herself manage to find something important. The inhabitants find a stronger sense of dignity and community, while Hushpuppy learns to brace for difficult circumstances ahead by finding something wild enough within her to meet it head on.

Video / Audio

The native 16mm print yields predictably large and chunky grain, but the transfer is at every turn full of natural depth and wonderfully lit scenes. Clarity is as good as 16mm gets, but the slightly rough – almost sandpaper – texture the grain imparts works wonders here, on a story where neither the landscape or the people are meant to be pristine. It has rough edges but warm character, just like the people it depicts. But what really shines through is some excellent cinematography and fantastic colors. Zeitlin and crew have sculpted a winning visual feast here, pulling true beauty out of a setting often seen as anything but.

I was pleasantly surprised by the care given to the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. For such a low-budget film, there is some real depth here, and the surround channels are naturally but expertly utilized. With much of the film shot as if from Hushpuppy’s perspective, the sights and sounds of her surroundings are dealt with in both immersive and sometimes hyper-real detail. Aurochs and nature run and twist around the aural field to great effect. In the midst of it all, dialogue is always kept in check for a very dynamic but well-balanced track.

Bonus Material

In a departure from the norm, the “Deleted Scenes” (HD, 14:00) included in the bonus section are all quite interesting, with several aiding the overall story. They are included with mandatory commentary by director Benh Zeitlin, but he does a good job of relegating his thoughts to the non-dialogue portions of each scene. Likewise, “The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild” (HD, 22:27) is an energetic and enlightening look at all the work that went into this small-budget film.

A collection of footage from the “Auditions” (SD, 15:15) gives an early glimpse at the actors who would portray the leads of Hushpuppy and Wink. “Glory At Sea” (HD, 25:44) is an earlier short film by Zeitlin, which contains both similar themes and style to the Beasts feature film. “Music” (HD, 3:06) is a quick, largely throwaway piece showing Benh working with Dan Romer on the film’s score. “The Aurochs” (HD, 3:18) is another quickie, this time focusing on the visual tricks used to incorporate the actual “beasts” used in the film. And finally, the “Theatrical Trailer” (HD, 1:53) is included.

Conclusion

Beasts Of The Southern Wild is an impressive debut, but more importantly it’s just a good movie. Thematically, it beautifully dances around the edges of fantasy and coming-of-age without ever getting weighed down by the trappings of either. Impressive performances by the newcomer leads add to the realism brought by the wonderfully shot locations. This is simply one of the most unique but accessible films of the year, and an engrossing set of characters to revisit with this Blu-ray release. Highly recommended film.

An interactive flip-book for the film is available at the official site, complete with clips, images and soundbites from the film.

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About David R Perry