Leaving the BAMcinemaFest screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild a quote from Christopher Nolan's The Prestige came to mind: "Pardon me. It's very rare to see real magic".
So, yes, to put it mildly Beasts delivers on it's rapidly growing hype. I will have lots to say in the coming weeks about this story of the rocky relationship between father and daughter as they float through Hurricane Katrina but first some brief reactions while I'm still basking in the afterglow:
- Of all the many elements of Beasts worthy of singling out for praise I will start by saying Beasts has the most striking original score since The Social Network. Rather than aping the action like 99 out of a 100 scores it filters the world musically through the mind of a precocious child.
- Beasts of the Southern Wild is the definition of a "just go and see it" movie, as in "No words I say can properly capture the experience so trust me, just go and see it." If I had to force it into Hollywood pitch speak it's the magic realism of Maurice Sendak + Days of Heaven + When the Levees Broke. Does that help?
- Without taking anything away from the great screenplay, nothing in Beasts feels written. Even when the film is straying from reality it maintains a documentary vibe, as if the cameras are just barely keeping up. Much credit to director Benh Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson.
- Despite taking place during Katrina, Beasts is a politics free zone, taking place in its own private world away from the world of FEMA and the Superdome and all of the familiar images of the catastrophe .
- I'm not as convinced as some that an Oscar nod is in the cards for the amazing Quvenzhane Wallis who was, I believe, five years old during filming. It is possible, but there isn't really a big scene like Keisha Castle Hughes' teary monologue in Whale Rider where the film rests entirely on her performance for an extended period. She mostly delivers a line or two or registers a reaction before cutting away. Not that she isn't a strong engaging presence or that it's not a real performance. She is and it is and audiences will surely fall in love with her. But it might be viewed more as the director's achievement than an acting one.
- I'd be surprised, on the other hand, if Dwight Henry's captivating, unsentimental work as Wink, Hushpuppy's boozing father, was not on the supporting short list come 2013. It's a totally natural, unmannered performance that carries much of the weight of the film. Once you factor in the astonishing story of how the man left his bakery to act on film for the first time, the competition will have to be pretty stiff for him to miss out.
- Best Picture, director, screenplay, editing, cinematography - even sound design - this film is going to be a contender - although I am far from convinced it will end up taking home any of those trophies. I can, however, easily see this dominating the Indie Spirits with several wins.
- The film's ace in the hole is the hard-earned tear jerking climax. It shows again that movies begging for my tears (cough War Horse cough) tend to leave me unmoved but characters determined to remain strong and resist sentiment in spite of deep emotions tend to unleash the water works.
- There is a sequence toward the end on a floating nightclub that is a mesmerizing, perfect stretch of filmmaking that is going to make Benh Zeitlin as a name director, just you watch.
- Beasts of the Southern Wild makes me want to try fried alligator, which I certainly didn't think possible
- I am very, very curious to see how this performs at the box office. I can imagine anything from 15 to 150 million. It is an unusual mix of unpolished art house aesthetic and crowd pleasing wonder and emotion. It could see it going either way.
Verdict: 9 out of 10