Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight Pictures, PG-13)

beasts sqSome movies are good for realistically depicting the world we live in; others are good for creating a world of their own. Beasts of the Southern Wild is the rare movie that does both things: It shows us our world, but in a fresh light.

 

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The weekend of July 20 is a great one for St. Louis movie lovers. We have The Dark Knight Rises opening; Tommy Wiseau is coming to the Tivoli to show The Room; and the Webster Film Series is partnering with Cinema St. Louis to show some excellent French films in the annual Classic French Film Festival. But one of the very best things that you can do this weekend out of all of those great options is to see the Sundance and Cannes sensation Beasts of the Southern Wild, which opens locally this weekend. You’ve no doubt been hearing a lot about lately if you keep up with the festival circuit, or the New York and Los Angeles film markets. The film is every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Some movies are good for realistically depicting the world we live in; others are good for creating a world of their own. Beasts of the Southern Wild is the rare movie that does both things: It shows us our world, but in a fresh light. The film’s protagonist is a six-year-old resident of the Bathtub named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who is also kind enough to narrate the film for us. She lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), and mostly runs loose around the bayou. The Bathtub is made up, but is credible enough that I bet a lot of people will leave the film thinking it’s a real place. It’s supposedly somewhere around New Orleans, but off the coast and separated from the mainland by a dam; its residents all appear to be living in some form of contented poverty. Hushpuppy speaks in instantly quotable dialogue and narration, and one of her favorite hobbies is listening to the heartbeats of animals.

Beyond how memorable and present Hushpuppy and Wink are as characters, the film’s overall aesthetic is one of the stars, as well. We’re treated to all manner of gorgeous shot compositions (you only need to go so far as the film’s poster to see what I mean, which has Hushpuppy running with sparklers, taken from the title screen), production design (boats made of old truck beds, etc.), and sequences (Hushpuppy putting on a mask and lighting the stove with a blow torch). And unlike most films recommended in this way, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an endless stream of this type of stuff. It’s not that one or two or three scenes are like this, but the whole damned thing is.

Beasts’ conflict primarily comes in the form of a storm that seems to be modeled after Hurricane Katrina. The storm in question doesn’t take up much screen time (but Wink’s response to it on Hushpuppy’s behalf is one of the many priceless moments in the film), though its aftermath does. Still, it seems to only exist as a means to get Hushpuppy and Wink to where they need to go; this is far from a disaster movie.

Another thing you’ll be rightly cowed by in the movie is its music, which turns out to have been co-written by the film’s writer/director, Benh Zeitlin, alongside Dan Romer, who collaborated with Zeitlin previously on a couple of short films. Beasts is Zeitlin’s first feature film, and it goes without saying that he’s a formidable young talent. (The film won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, which is the prize for the best film from a first-time filmmaker.) This is one of those films that, when you see it, you know it’ll be one of the best you see all year. I feel pretty confident in saying that this will be in my top three favorite 2012 releases. Look for it on my end-of-the-year top 10 list, and look for me in the theater to see it again and again. | Pete Timmermann

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