Movie review: A wild ride with ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Bob Tremblay

The raves have already been pouring in for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” having won awards at the Cannes and Sundance film festivals.

I wish I could hop on this bandwagon of bravos, but the film simply didn’t move me. Maybe it was its lack of plot, maybe it was its occasional sojourns into sentimentality, maybe I need more shock therapy. This just strikes me as a film that cineastes will savor, but the general public might have trouble digesting, considering how bleak and disturbing so many scenes are.

But, hey, critics love bleak and disturbing. It’s called realism, and this film, set in Louisiana, liberally mixes in fantasy, ecology and humanity to create a cinematic jambalaya. Bring on the crayfish.

So if you’re sick of Hollywood comic-book schlock and want to hunker down with an uber-indie film, you’ll go wild over “Wild.”

The film is narrated by its protagonist, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a 6-year-old girl living with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a destitute bayou region called the Bathtub. The place is so poor that the cockroaches are on welfare. Can I hear a rimshot?

Moving right along, Hushpuppy displays amazing maturity for a child so young and if you lived in a place like this, with no mother and a father who is frequently drunk, occasionally abusive and suffers from a heart ailment, you better grow up fast. Her survival skills are off the charts.

To cope with this less than idyllic home life, Hushpuppy lets her imagination literally run wild, dreaming up rampaging prehistoric beasts called aurochs that resemble huge boars. You may wonder how other children share her fantasy. Perhaps they’re part of the dream.

Anyway, a storm arrives to further afflict this post-Katrina region and, when the floodwaters recede ,we get to see all kinds of carrion.

The film serves as a testament to the resiliency of the people who try to make a living in an area that God seems to have deserted. They somehow keep their spirits high and their senses of humor intact, displaying a bravado that some might mistake for insanity.

The film’s startling visuals have a documentary feel to them. It’s almost like looking at a National Geographic special on natural disasters in impoverished areas.

“Beasts” serves as the feature film debut of director Benh Zeitlin, 29, who channels his inner Terrence Malick here, paying more attention to the human condition and nature than a linear narrative. Based on a play by Lucy Alibar, the script was penned by Zeitlin and Alibar. Zeitlin also co-wrote the score. Look for him in your megaplex selling popcorn, too. As for the screenplay, you may wonder how a 6-year-old can speak with such wisdom.

That said, the script creates characters who feel like they’re as naturally a part of this domain as swamp grass. The writers were aided in this by the decision to cast locals and nonprofessionals. Henry, for example, is a baker.

Whether you buy into “Beasts” or not, you have to impressed by Wallis. Her debut performance borders on the supernatural and never descends into cuteness. One hopes the Oscar folks don’t forget her.

With its unflinching look at a world where hope comes in short supply, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” should be a success with the art house crowd. Me? I like my realism served by a story rather than a struggle. Dissenters can recommend an affordable shock therapist for me.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is rated PG-13. The film is in theaters now.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (B)