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Feature


Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a six-year-old force of nature in an isolated bayou community. When her tough but loving father Wink (Dwight Henry) succumbs to a mysterious malady, the fierce and determined girl bravely sets out on a journey to the outside world. But Hushpuppy’s quest is hindered by a ‘busted’ universe that melts the ice caps and unleashes an army of prehistoric beasts. (From Fox’s official synopsis)

Beasts of the Southern Wild
First-time feature director Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is stylistically filmic free jazz, yet it’s not an unwieldy or laborious art-house experience. It moves at a vigorous pace and flows effortlessly between hyper-natural vignettes without demanding anything more than the most basic degree of attention from its audience. The audience is challenged not by content, aside from some occasionally grueling glimpses at Hushpuppy’s trials, but in dealing with the themes from a subjective point of view. The surface experience is smooth, but beneath its deceptive simplicity is a whole squirming mass of socio-political questions that can be approached from diametrically-opposed political persuasions. If you tend to lean left you might see a film that calls attention to a group of people that have been forgotten by a capitalistic society that doesn’t care (“The most important thing I can teach you is you gotta learn to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are”). You might also find a potent environmental message. If you tend to lean right you might see a group of poor people that are proving exactly how much they don’t need or even want social assistance. And these are just my simplifications of the socio-political discussions; God only knows how many contrasting theories are running around that concern this group’s perceived ‘terrorist’ actions. Unfortunately, Beasts of the Southern Wild’s most obscure qualities likely remain cryptic, because they require the kind of debate that most of us don’t have, outside of screaming matches on Facebook or Twitter.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is also brimming with absolute truth and a prodigious understanding of the human condition that slides above the introspective and highly personal ‘core’ readings (“Everyone loses the thing that made them.”). The number of things I personally have in common with Hushpuppy are so minimal that they aren’t even worth counting, yet I understand who she is to the point that I feel like I personally know her by the end of the film’s brief, 93-minute run-time. Zeitlin’s comprehension of a child’s view of the world rivals even the most celebrated fictional explorations of the subject. The big difference is that Beasts of the Southern Wild rarely breaks into a special effects-driven version of Hushpuppy’s worldview. The closest Zeitlin gets to something like Spike Jonze’s or Michel Gondry’s surrealistic representations of juvenile visions are the cutaways to check in on the prehistoric Aurochs – creatures whose thematic significance is questionable beyond whatever they represent to Hushpuppy herself, which is really another subjective mystery, at least by the way it’s presented in the context of the film.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
I even find myself understanding Wink, despite his mostly despicable behavior throughout the film, and the other residents of The Bathtub, despite their lack of character development. This simple sympathy rises partly from the film’s mythological storytelling roots, but even more from Zeitlin’s cinéma vérité shooting style, which apes the approach of a documentary feature. The lines between fact and fiction are further blurred by the use of amateur actors and Zeitlin’s refusal to watch dailies, both of which create an authentically spontaneous experience. The faux-reality creates a successful character development shorthand, making it easy to just assume these are real people. Fernando Meirelles did something similar with his seminal Brazilian crime flick City of God, which also explores a forgotten subset of humanity. Cidade de Deus and The Bathtub are spiritual siblings that represent the best and worst of the poorest communities within their respective countries. Of course, the key differences between Meirelles’ and Zeitlin’s films are almost as important as their similarities – City of God is a narrative retelling of actual events, while Beast of the Southern Wild is a more impetuous and only based for on anthropological facts, City of God aims to recreate reality, while Beasts of the Southern Wild is a vérité fairy tale, and, perhaps most important, City of God is absolutely not appropriate for children, while Beasts of the Southern Wild is perfectly suitable for kids (cool kids) – the tonal and creative parallels are too delicious to pass up.

However, I can think of two more apt films to couple with Beasts of the Southern Wild, each of which would create a very different double-feature experience. My first thought is Byambasuren Davaa’s Cave of the Yellow Dog, the underseen story of the oldest daughter of a Mongolian nomad family, who finds a stray dog while collecting yak dung and brings it home (it’s available on Netflix streaming for the curious). Again, my comparisons are largely cosmetic – both films follow a non-actor child through an alien culture in a vérité manner that speaks to the homogenous nature of humanity. Davaa’s film isn’t particularly lively or politically infused (as far as I can tell), but her relatively plotless look at nomad life is a nice, subdued mirror to Zeitlin’s film. My second thought is Spike Lee’s two-part documentary on the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, When the Levees Broke (which, I suppose, makes for more of a triple feature). I may be thinking too literally here, but Zeitlin’s choice of locale simply must be meant to evoke the Katrina floods, while The Bathtub residence anarchic reactions to the ‘civilized world’ paint a dramatically subversive and reactive picture that echoes the real human tragedy of Lee’s documentary.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Video


Beasts of the Southern Wild is, as stated above, a rough, cinéma vérité experience. To press this idea, Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson shot the film while using smaller format 16mm film, which doesn’t make for the most indelible 1080p, 1.85:1 home video experience. The film tends to alternate between extremely dark sequences and blown out daylight sequences, focus is pulled willy-nilly in a frantic attempt to capture the frenetic actions of the actors, and the heavy grain of the format tends to overwhelm on occasion. But, the experience here is more or less identical to the one I had in theaters, so I can’t blame this disc for messing anything up.  Detail levels are quite sharp in close-up, which works well for the compositions, though the continuously moving camerawork and fluctuating focus doesn’t keep anything sharp too long. Long shot details are pretty limited, but rarely mushy and never shimmering with compression artefacts. Besides the intended texture of the film grain, artefacts really aren’t a problem, not even the minor edge enhancement that often goes along with the 16mm format. Colour quality is mixed, mostly due to Zeitlin and Richardson use of natural lighting. The base palettes are earthy browns for The Bathtub and cold grays and blues of the ‘modern’ world. Each palette features its share of poppy elements, mostly yellows and reds, but the punch of forest greens are the most vibrant examples of 16mm’s colour capabilities.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack does its job very efficiently and has a few nice surprises I missed when I saw the film in theaters, but nothing ever jumps out beyond the film’s low-maintenance expectations. There’s plenty of directional enhancement speckled throughout the film, starting with the introductory party and its poppy, booming, multi-channel aggressiveness. Storm and flooding sequences bellow nicely as well with an eclectic use of different rain sounds and the Auroch sequence features quite a bit of grumbling bass, especially when they’re broken out of their icy prisons. But the overall mix is made to sound natural, like a real documentary would be, so the majority of the noise is subtle, inconsistent in terms of volume levels (aside from Hushpuppy’s narration), and relatively centered. The sound design cleverly mixes some of the natural sounds, specifically from Hushpuppy’s point-of-view, like when she puts animals up to her ear to listen to their hearts, but the absolute most expressive use of the stereo and surround enhancement comes out of the music. The score blends traditional Cajun folk influences with original compositions by Zeitlin and producer/composer Dan Romer (neither of which have worked on a feature-length motion picture before). The music is presented in a live-recording style that gives it a driving force and intertwined immediacy with the soundtrack’s effects work, creating a swirl of noise that sits nicely beneath Hushpuppy’s narration.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Extras


Extras begin with The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild (22:30, HD), a relatively raw look behind the scenes, including an exploration of the real Bathtub of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, the casting process, rehearsals, rewriting the script with the cast, production design, special effects, creature design, and the film’s Sundance rollout. This was a truly independent production made by a group of friends and family with little professional experience, which makes for a delightfully personal and warm, slice-of-life featurette. There are no direct interviews, but the whole thing is narrated by Terrence McKnight. Up next is Glory at Sea (24:40, HD) a short film Zeitlin directed in 2008 that follows the themes and styles of Beasts of the Southern Wild quite closely. It’s sort of a wind-up for feature-length aspirations, but could also be taking place alongside the events of Hushpuppy and Wink’s journey. The disc also features a promo for the musical soundtrack (3:00, HD) with producer Michael Gottwald, composer Dan Romer, and director/composer Zeitlin, a featurette on the history of the Aurochs (3:10, HD) with Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar, deleted/extended scenes with commentary by Zeitlin (14:00, HD), audition footage of Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry (15:20, SD), and trailers.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Overall


I just read a wonderful synopsis of Beasts of the Southern Wild via John Waters, who names it his sixth favourite film of the year. He states:‘Directed as if the film crew snuck aboard a Weather Channel boat during Hurricane Katrina, kidnapped the skipper, hijacked the storm chasers’ equipment, swam ashore, and made a boldly original movie.’ I like that. I spent a lot of time comparing the film to other films in my review, but in reality it’s a unique vision and I hope co-writer/co-composer/director Benh Zeitlin and his Court 13 comrades continue to build upon their unique characteristics for future releases. This Blu-ray release is somewhat limited by the quality of the 16mm film, but still looks pretty sharp and sounds quite good in DTS-HD MA sound. The extras are kind of brief, but cover the important bases of this peculiar production.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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