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September 07 — September 13

Beasts of the Southern Wild

PG-13, thematic material including child imperilment and some disturbing images, 93 mins

Fri 5:30 7:30
Sat & Sun 2:00 5:00 7:00
Mon-Thurs 5:30

Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.

Critic Roger Ebert says it best: “Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius.”  Blindsiding might be the key word.  There are many films that we expect to be great because of the filmmakers involved—the director, writer, actors, cinematographer—and they either live up to that promise or disappoint us.  How wonderful is it, then, to be “blindsided” by genius—to come into a film performed by fresh-faced, non-professional actors, made by an unknown director in his debut, and exploring a strange world that no one ever imagined?  Beasts of the Southern Wild is such a film.  It’s directed by Benh Zietlin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lucy Alibar.  The setting is an isolated community called the Bathtub, separated from the rest of New Orleans by flood-water.  Even viewers who have done volunteer work in Katrina-devastated New Orleans will find the Bathtub unique and unfamiliar: it’s almost a science fiction-like depiction of post-Apocalyptic community, in which the few remaining humans scavenge through the wreckage of civilization just to stay alive.  Not a post-Katrina movie, this is a post-post-Katrina movie—the characters have not only adjusted to the traumatic catastrophe of the flooding, but built a new kind of world among the ruins, as well as their own private myths, moral codes, and dreams of the future.  It’s so outlandish it surely couldn’t be true, yet it is: many of the “actors” in Beasts of the Southern Wild have first-hand experience with the daily fight for survival that still goes on.  Making this world even more oddly magical is the fact that it’s viewed from the perspective of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, played with remarkable naturalism by Quvenzhané Wallis.  Through her eyes, we see the sublime beauty and exciting mystery of this ramshackle existence—while our adult minds comprehend the danger and tragedy that Hushpuppy does not.  Dwight Henry plays Wink, the girl’s father, struggling to protect his daughter from the threat of rising floodwaters and also the knowledge of what happened to Hushpuppy’s mother.  He tells her that she simply “swam away,” which causes Hushpuppy to make occasional heartrending pleas to the ocean for her mother to return.  Yet Hushpuppy has the young child’s innate optimism and ability to see beauty and have fun even in an environment of extreme poverty: she sees the Bathtub as a kind of playground, where even the lethality of fire is unknown to her.  For that reason, Beasts of the Southern Wild never becomes as heavy-handed or depressing as it could be; audiences are simply asked to accept this community as an alternative way of living—a way that emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit rather than the misfortune of one’s surroundings or painful past history.  But neither is the situation sugar-coated.  It’s this blend of hard-edged realism and child-like innocence that makes the film so absorbing.  Director Zietlin infuses every image with symbolic resonance and evocative power: from scenes of people building home-made arks in preparation for another massive flood; to shots of distant oil refineries that look like dinosaur skeletons or alien artifacts; to Hushpuppy’s speaking with animals (and seeming to understand what they say to her)—there’s an almost literary quality to the film, a bold authorial design that imbues even simple images and moments with extra layers of meaning and significance.  That the film comes across as neither pretentious nor precocious is a tribute to Zeitlin’s skillful work with actors, who never seem like amateurs mimicking what they consider “acting.”  They’re complete naturals, giving documentary-like gravity to their scenes and touching our hearts without trying.  Critics have likened Beasts of the Southern Wild to the Southern Gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, but the film is more poetic than grotesque, with an ultimately hopeful view of humanity—both as tough, resilient individuals and as a close-knit, caring community in the face of adversity.  Ebert called Beasts of the Southern Wild one of the year’s best films, and perhaps more than any other recent movie, it really captures the millennial mood of rebuilding-after-the-storm: not just Katrina, but the tragedy of 9/11 and the recent economic meltdown.  It’s a film about survivors, for survivors—with a poetic soul and moments of startling originality and transcendence.