When the Oscars are presented a week from today, this visual allegory set in the Cajun-bayou wetlands of costal Louisiana probably won’t be one of the big winners - - although it has garnered nominations for its director, screenwriters & leading lady…not to mention a final nod as best film of the year. Like A Better Life, last year’s independently produced nominee, Beasts has the look and feel of a low-cost labor of love, but don’t let the apparently crude cinematography and monosyllabic dialogue fool you - - this is an impressive debut for director Bedh Zeitlin and as visceral a movie-going experience as you’re likely to see for some time.
The director and co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar (adapting her own play, “Juicy & Delicious) have fashioned a plot which asks audiences to ponder what global warming might mean to the poorest among us - - those who live in lowland areas around the globe because of their extreme poverty. All of Beasts action takes place on a scrubby, pockmarked island nicknamed “The Bathtub”, located within sight of America’s massive, prosperous and often environmentally destructive oil and gas production facilities. Among the Bathtub’s inhabitants are a father and daughter (Wink & Hushpuppy) who live in adjacent derelict trailers, despite the fact the girl is only 6 years old. He’s a self-destructive alcoholic who intersperses barked commands at his daughter with childish horseplay. As the movie opens, Wink (played by a heretofore unknown restaurateur from New Orleans named Dwight Henry) wanders off so frequently Hushpuppy wonders if he’ll abandon her in premature death the way her mother did.
A hurricane devastates The Bathtub, forcing its already marginalized residents ever deeper into desperate poverty. Yet they stubbornly remain on the island, using booze for liquid courage and a variety of bizarrely constructed contraptions in order to cling to life on the margin. Throughout this ordeal and its sad aftermath, Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest actress ever nominated for a best acting Oscar) ruminates about the ecological threats facing the world in the 21st century, mixing naive observation with remarkably trenchant warnings about what we can expect in this era of global warming and exploding population growth. Her voiceovers are accompanied by the mysterious appearance onscreen of a herd of aurochs, extinct, long-horned wild oxen that once roamed Europe. Their unexplained presence (and Hushpuppy’s defiance of them at her dying father’s bedside) gives new meaning to the old cliché “out of the mouths of babes…”
If Beasts has the look and feel of a precocious student film project, it may be due to the fact it’s the initial effort from both the director and his co-screenwriter. But don’t allow its haphazard appearance fool you; what this production lacks in sophisticated technical skills is more than offset by its remarkable ability to examine the lives of the invisible; the desperately poor and socially outcast among us who retreat, willingly or out of economic necessity, into the least attractive and most dangerous places to live. The Bathtub’s citizenry may be uneducated, unwashed and unemployed - - but their good humor, stoicism and endurance demand to be noticed. This meandering, occasionally incoherent but emotionally touching film forces those who watch it to do just that.
Not a small accomplishment for this modestly-budgeted but highly-imaginative exploration of what American movies can accomplish if they stop pandering to adolescent fantasies and offer audiences something to think about.
The verdict? Along with The Master,(another of the challanging films in this year’s Oscar race) this one disturbs even as it entertains. And Ms. Wallis is a sure bet to steal your heart whether she walks off with a statuette or not.
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