Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011]

Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011]

Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011]
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Genre: Drama
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry
Runtime: 91 minutes

Down at the very bottom of Lousiana is a place I had no idea existed. Deep in the Delta, there are communities and villages that gradually dissipate with every storm. Populations have dwindled as their land slowly washes away, yet so many of them refuse to leave. Even with governmental orders to evacuate, the citizens opt to stay and attempt to wait out the storm. They are a proud, if not stubborn, bunch.

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in a similar location identified as “The Bathtub”, a washed-out bayou community south of the levee. The Bathtub has a bit of a mystical feel to it — its denizens live in boarded-up shacks with all sorts of animals running around outside. They live by their own set of rules and make do with what’s available nearby.

The film, which has been tearing up the festival scene (winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes), shows this world from a six-year-old girl’s perspective. This girl, nicknamed Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhane Wallis), lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), an alcoholic but caring man who is suffering from a serious illness. He is trying to hide his health problems from Hushpuppy, but this young lady is wise beyond her years. She knows something is wrong, and she begins bracing herself for the inevitable.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy has a wild and vivid imagination, as most children her age do, and she has visions of mythical beasts known as Aurochs (a sort of boar/cow hybrid). She also talks to a chair, imagining her long-lost mother is sitting there. While her father still helps take care of her, Hushpuppy does a lot on her own, even cooking her own meals and taking care of her own “house” (essentially a small shack).

As the film follows Hushpuppy, so does the camera. Director Benh Zeitlin, in his full-length debut, opts to keep the camera at her viewpoint so it feels like we are seeing exactly what she sees. I love this idea, but there were moments of unnecessary shaky cam, particularly in the beginning of the film. The shakiness tamed a bit over time, but it felt a bit too exuberant at first.

Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011]

Regardless, Zeitlin and his cinematographer Ben Richardson succeeded in creating a wild, vivid world that is entirely engrossing. I felt like I was right there in the bayou, and I was introduced to a community unlike any I had ever seen. The fact that these guys were able to create such an amazing set with a budget of $1-2 million is astonishing.

In a stroke of pure genius (likely aided by the low budget), Zeitlin opted to go with a cast of Louisiana locals to star in the film. In a Q&A session I was honored to see first hand, the director stated that he went through over 3,000 auditions for the role of Hushpuppy before deciding on newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in this role. Miss Wallis is so endearing in this role with a great deal of personality — she has a bright future in this business if she so desires.

The story behind the casting of Wink is an amusing one. Once again, Zeitlin went through countless auditions but just couldn’t find the right guy for the part. While taking breaks from the casting process, the crew would go across the street to a bakery, which just so happened to be owned by Dwight Henry. Zeitlin instantly became a fan of Henry’s personality and essentially begged him to try out for the part. Henry kept dodging the idea — he was, after all, a full-time business owner — but they finally got through to him. Despite having to work around his odd business hours (he worked from 11pm-10am), Zeitlin and company found their man, and as Mr. Henry stated, “the rest is history.”

Dwight Henry

It’s no wonder that Beasts of the Southern Wild has been getting all sorts of critical acclaim. This is a film with some serious lasting power, one that shows life in a Katrina-like world but also wisely avoids getting into any political matters. From the perspective of Hushpuppy, this almost feels like a folk tale, one that people will not soon forget.

It still blows my mind that this is Zeitlin’s first film (not to mention the first for much of the cast and crew as well). The movie isn’t perfect — I wish the shaky cam were alleviated a bit, and the script does run errant in the final act — but I am still in awe at the cajun world that I was able to experience for 90 minutes. Folks, pencil in June 27 on your calendar. Beasts of the Southern Wild will be unlike any film you have seen.

8/10

Movie Review: The Last Exorcism [2010, Stamm]

The Last Exorcism [2010, Stamm]

The Last Exorcism [2010]
Director: Daniel Stamm
Genre: Drama/Horror/Thriller
Language: English
Country: USA

Not afraid to ride the coattails of The Blair Witch Project or even Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism is one of the more recent titles in the increasingly popular “mockumentary horror” genre. Filmed as if it were a documentary, the movie follows Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a Louisiana man of the Lord who casually admits to faking his way through a bunch of exorcisms. He has an elaborate setup for the process, complete with electronic props and ominous sound effects (from an iPod) to try to make the experience authentic. Reverend Marcus has decided to expose the exorcism business (hence the documentary crew) and he decides to do one last ritual to prove that this is all bullshit. He randomly selects one letter request that takes him to a rural farm where the family’s teenage daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), is seemingly possessed. It doesn’t take long for Marcus and crew to realize that something is seriously wrong at the farm.

I greatly enjoyed the premise of the movie, and the opening scenes of the Reverend exposing his religious “services” were nothing short of brilliant. I loved the idea of seeing a religious con man on film, as well as the subtle shots related to this (such as Marcus slapping a Jesus Fish magnet on the back of his car before hitting the road). The back story provided is entertaining, and it is aided by a charismatic performance from Fabian.

The Last Exorcism [2010]

When the documentary crew hits the farm, the movie takes a startling turn and shows its horror chops. Something is definitely not right with Nell, and the “mockumentary” camerawork shows a first hand account of how messed up she is. Relative newcomer Ashley Bell delivers a stirring performance, showing off a character who can be both sweet and nasty with equal ability. There are a number of jump-inducing moments on the farm and the atmosphere is tense upon arrival, where the crew is greeted by Nell’s rock-throwing brother (Caleb Landry Jones).

The Last Exorcism is good enough to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, but it has one major problem that is directly related to its faux-documentary style: its abrupt, cheesy ending. Obviously I can’t get into details here, but the ending is unbelievably over-the-top and seems out of place compared to the previous 80 minutes. It’s unfortunate that a better ending could not have been used, as what they came up with is really weak and is bound to infuriate many (or even most) viewers.

The Last Exorcism [2010, Stamm]

Still, even with the lackluster finale, The Last Exorcism is one of the better American horror offerings to come out in the last couple years. Strong performances from Fabian and Bell add some personality to the film, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the nerve-wracking atmosphere. The Last Exorcism is ultimately a good film that could have been even better with a more satisfying ending.

7/10