Friday, January 11, 2013

Allegory of the Cave

Every once in awhile a movie comes along that truly captures the imagination, and for me that was Beasts of the Southern Wild.  It is gratifying to see it has received so many Oscar nominations, including best actress for young Quvenzhane Wallis.

This film is startling in so many ways.  Foremost is the humane way Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar have depicted the extreme poverty of this bayou community.  It makes you squeam watching little Hushpuppy make a meal for herself when she can't find her father, and flinch at her pain when stuck by a catfish her father forces her to strike with her tiny fist.  Yet, this little girl stands tall, literally growing in front of your eyes from beginning to end of this film.  Innocence gives way to world-wise young lady with the full impact of the storm is felt.

While this film is ostensibly a response to Katrina, the director breaks apart any sense of a conventional time and place, reminding me a little of Faulkner's The Old Man from If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem.  The local teacher (Miss Bathsheba) fills little Hushpuppy's head with antediluvian aurochs that lead her to imagine a post-climate-change world that she has inflicted upon the community by striking back at her father, in which these huge porcine beasts have been unlocked from the Antarctic ice and set free on her bayou plain.  But, unlike Malick's dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, these beasts fit with the semi-hallucinogenic world Hushpuppy lives in.

Zeitlin and Alibar have gone with non-actors from the local community, giving this film an authenticity few others have achieved.  There are holes, some gaping, as the writers grope to try to connect the "Bathtub" community with the outside world.  It probably would have been better to keep them isolated in their semi-primitive state like the band of cave dwellers Miss Bathsheba alludes to.  I was surprised to see A.O. Scott view it is as Spielbergian, on a budget, as this film is about as un-Spielbergian as you can get.  However, I did question the sentimentality Zeitlin squeezed from some of the scenes.

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