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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Sundance: The fest finds an early fan favorite

By David Fear

RECOMMENDED: All Sundance Film Festival coverage

"A revelation." "A masterpiece." "Words can't describe this movie." "The kind of magical screening you go to Sundance for!" Anyone tuning in to the Twittersphere, browsing the early online reviews or simply being within earshot of froth-mouthed journalists would have been exposed to the praise being heaped on Beasts of the Southern Wild, a coming-of-age film that immediately inspired rabid fandom. A surreal mood piece set in Louisiana, director Benh Zeitlin's feature debut centers around a six-year-old named Hushpuppy (played by the astonishing young actress Quvenzhan Wallis) living in an itinerant backwoods community. Mostly left to fend for herself amid the rust-bucket shacks and makeshift dwellings these folks call homes, Hushpuppy nearly burns her place down by cooking cat-food stew using a flamethrower. Then comes a biblical flood, which literally sets Hush, her dad and their neighbors afloat in a trash trawler called "the bathtub." Tough-love lessons are doled out; wisdom comes from the mouths of narration-spouting babes. Such Malick-lite poetic ruralism, along with outr lyrical touches like giant prehistoric boars roaming the land (no, really), left a large number of critics and bloggers drooling. I envy their hyperbolic enthusiasm.

You can't deny that there is a distinct sensibility at work here, as well as an impressive amount of ambition on Zeitlin's part for setting his story in a tonal interzone between fractured fairy tale and tribal myth. (And even the film's detractors can't find fault with Wallis's performance, which isn't just a great feat of child acting; it's a great feat of acting, period. Her standing ovation after the movie's premiere was well deserved.) But while flashes of gorgeous expressionism can make up for a lot, they can't fix the nagging sense that this is simply a young man crafting a work of self-conscious faux-outsider art. Beasts's fixations on the characters' happy-hobo-like existence in their junkyard-chic world goes from informing the Homeric odyssey narrative to eclipsing it, and even a climax of apocalyptic uplift feels more like an excuse for one jaw-dropping image (again, it involves giant boars) rather than a journey's end.

Still, the hosannas rain down and a vocal contingent—Team Beasts?—is circling its critical wagons. Whether they wonder if this film about treating below-the-poverty-line characters as shamans courts as the sort of overaestheticized condescension that a colleague dubbed "po'sploitation" (think Bombay Beach) or not is still anyone's guess; as for the rest of us, we admire the film's balls and reserve to right to throw on a DVD of Ballast for our Poetic Ruralism 2.0 fix.

A quick memo to Simon Killer's director, Antonio Campos: We love Euro-angst too, and you seem to have impeccable taste in terms of influences. We dig your work as a producer on last year's hit Martha Marcy May Marlene. You made a decent Haneke homage with 2008's Afterschool, and this follow-up about an American dude in Paris (big up Brady Corbet, the go-to guy for twentysomething handsome creeps) with serious women issues is, we're guessing, your ode to Bruno Dumont's circuses of cinepathology and pain. We eagerly await your next film, which we're assuming will be some sort of paean to either Claire Denis or Ulrich Seidl. But dude, if you're going to make a feel-bad movie, it's best to have a point regarding the bad feelings. Ambivalence about your antihero is one thing, and mistaking cryptic ugliness for human-condition exploration is another. It reeks of "hate couture." Also, you may want to include giant boars next time out. People seem to be digging that.


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