Editor’s Notes: In preparation for his ‘Projection: Oscar’ series starting again this fall, Oscar Pundit Jason McKiernan will take the next couple of weeks to review the already released 2012 titles with the most Oscar buzz.
With all the hullabaloo over high-profile summer releases like The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, and the huge indie box-office success of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the film that has made the most significant Oscar impact of the first half of 2012 is Beasts of the Southern Wild. It was a buzzy title back at Sundance, became an even hotter property at Cannes, and now here we stand, on the precipice of Oscar season, and it’s the most talked contender of the moment.
This is the kind of stunning breakout work that can sort of doom a filmmaker – and certainly an actor – for years to come, simply because the work is so singular.
Specifically, the buzz centers on the work of two indispensible individuals, both of whom seem to have emerged from the ether with profound talents – writer-director Behn Zeitlin and eight-year-old lead actress, Quvenzhane Wallis. This is the kind of stunning breakout work that can sort of doom a filmmaker – and certainly an actor – for years to come, simply because the work is so singular. Wallis was plucked from nowhere and delivers one of the year’s most indelible characters, the fiercely independent Hush Puppy, who was born of the Deep South with all the misplaced confidence of an oppressed society…and yet she feels a pull to get out and make her mark on the world. For Zeitlin, this is a powerful first impression, a film full of human subtleties and outsized symbolism from a fresh, new filmmaking perspective.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Beasts operates on the level of a classic deep south folktale, immersing us in a world that is entirely created and yet touches on deeply human tragedies, fears, and hopes. It seamlessly fuses broad fiction with acute reality.
Scenery drips all over us during the film’s trailblazing 91 minutes, nearly gothic in its treachery, the stench of mud, moss, and murky water practically emanating from the screen. This is Hush Puppy’s world, “The Bathtub,” deep in the Delta, on the verge of a potentially world-ending catastrophe. The ice caps are melting, the levees are tenuous, and disaster appears imminent. The local schoolhouse teacher shares a tale of the beasts that once ruled the land, the Arochs, and as the ice melts, those beasts break loose from their frozen prison and begin a slow march back to The Bathtub.
Hush Puppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry, also magnificent), is a beast in his own way – out of necessity. Loud, brash, and impulsive, he scavenges for food, disappears for long periods of time, and raises his daughter with reckless abandon. For Wink, it’s an eat-or-be-eaten world, and he intends to make sure he’s always the one doing the eating. Such is the bravado bred into a man clearly oppressed by the circumstances of his life; having been relegated to the literal fringes of society, Wink chooses to thumb his nose at the world on the other side of the levees. Hush Puppy follows closely in her daddy’s footsteps, and yet she’s curious…she thinks of her mother, who long ago disappeared for reasons we never learn. Maybe she’s out there somewhere, Hush Puppy wonders. If Wink wants to ignore the rest of the world, Hush Puppy sees the potential to occupy it, to make herself known. She could be a pint-size revolutionary.
Unfolding like a dreary-yet-defiant fairy tale, Beasts of the Southern Wild is heartbreaking but hopeful, angry but tender.
Unfolding like a dreary-yet-defiant fairy tale, Beasts of the Southern Wild is heartbreaking but hopeful, angry but tender. The screenplay, by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, draws on real-life tragedies but places them squarely in the context of a vividly created framework. Visually, there is a similar dichotomy, with the authenticity of the rough, grainy, documentary-like footage juxtaposed against moments of stunning cinematic beauty, otherworldly invention, and storybook imagination. Zeitlin’s talent is uniquely fascinating, though it certainly seems form-fitted to this specific material. Here’s hoping he can branch out in the future career that is now guaranteed.
Wallis is the film’s human anchor, and hers is one of those rare, blow-your-hair-back achievements in film acting. She conveys the naïveté of childhood, the wisdom of forced experience, and the defiance of a classic heroine. She is also the film’s Oscar anchor, a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination – and currently the odds-on favorite to win, albeit at a stage in the season when most of the candidates haven’t been widely seen, if at all.
And the film itself is an experience, a surprise, a film that people will tell their friends to see. That’s the stuff of Oscar contenders, and this is one accomplished enough to be a multi-nominee.
Oscar Thoughts: This could be an Oscar standout in multiple categories. Wallis is a given, but Henry is a possibility in Supporting Actor, Zeitlin and Alibar could land a screenplay nod, and Zeitlin could be a Best Director nominee as well. And hell, music and craft categories aren’t out of the question, either – in spite of its deliberately rough look, it is one of the year’s most meticulously crafted films.
[notification type=”star”]80/100 ~ GREAT. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a staggering piece of folk art, dripping in atmosphere and brimming with attitude and in[/notification]