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Beasts of the Southern Wild: Making waves 

***1/2

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
***1/2
DIRECTED BY Benh Zeitlin
STARS Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry

RED LIGHT DISTRICT: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) searches for her mother in a house of ill-repute in Beasts of the Southern Wild. (Photo: Fox Searchlight)
  • RED LIGHT DISTRICT: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) searches for her mother in a house of ill-repute in Beasts of the Southern Wild. (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Fully aware of the blasphemous nature of this statement, I nevertheless will go on record as acknowledging that I've always felt John Carpenter was better as a composer than as either a writer or director. His excellent scores for (among others) Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and Escape from New York are highly effective in their relative simplicity, and it's impossible not to respond to their hypnotic rhythms. With writer-director-composer Benh Zeitlin, it's too early to make such a call, given that Beasts of the Southern Wild marks his feature-film debut in all three capacities. Admittedly, I left the advance screening raving about the score he co-crafted with Dan Romer, but that's not meant to take away from the lyrical script he penned with Lucy Alibar or his masterful direction of this unique movie.

Belonging under the same umbrella of "magical realism" that also informed works as diverse as Amélie, Like Water for Chocolate and The Tin Drum, this new picture centers on 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a headstrong girl from the Louisiana bayou. With her mother long absent from the scene, she lives in a ramshackle home next to that of her father Wink (Dwight Henry), a man whose often harsh manner with his daughter isn't child abuse as much as an extreme — and, given the surroundings, usually necessary — form of tough love. The poor people who populate this community are rich in spirit, so after a brutal storm (obviously Katrina) decimates the area, the survivors elect to engage in a celebration replete with booze and seafood. But Wink, who has already been succumbing to a mysterious ailment, shows no signs of getting better, and Hushpuppy's angst over his condition is compounded by the fact that the melting polar ice caps have released an army of long-extinct aurochs (presented by this film as killer cattle) which is inexorably marching toward Hushpuppy's terrain.

Winner of no less than four prizes at Cannes and two at Sundance, Beasts of the Southern Wild might be a bit too harsh for small children (it's rated PG-13 for "child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality"). That's a shame, since, like Whale Rider before it, the movie offers some valuable life lessons for kids, ones far more heady than the usual "Be yourself" mantra repeated ad nauseam in countless American animated features. This is a story of survival, of recognizing and respecting the rules of the natural world. It's also highly imaginative, doubtless able to charge young minds more than any assembly-line Hasbro adaptation. Most importantly, Beasts boasts a remarkable lead in Quvenzhané Wallis, who proves to be a natural before the camera. Like Wallis, the majority of the cast is comprised of amateurs (Henry, for example, is a baker by trade), and as the most compelling person in the film, she lends strength to the Biblical adage that a little child shall lead them.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
Rated PG-13 · 91 min. · 2012
Official Site: www.welcometothebathtub.com
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writer: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Producer: Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey and Josh Penn
Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry

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