'The end is nigh,' says the world of film, and who are we to disagree? Between global warming, world-wide fiscal disaster, and doomed politics, it's a wonder anyone in this country can fall asleep at night. Even if they are still getting some shut-eye, American film-makers are working 'round the clock to ensure that your nightmares make it up to the silver screen. Over the course of the last year, indie flicks have dreamed of destruction (Take Shelter, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), while blockbusters pivot on reflections of real-world events (The Dark Knight Rises) and employ a complete lack of trust in The Man (Prometheus) and The System (The Hunger Games). Even The Avengers, one of the most happy-go-lucky tent poles in recent memory, featured a government wholly willing to level New York with a nuclear missile. You've probably already witnessed the apocalypse take place on film a handful of times, but you've never seen anything like Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) is a 6-year-old girl growing up in The Bathtub, a fictitious Delta-area community with a rich, insular culture, and Miller Light to go around. Hushpuppy's mom is long gone by the time we drop in, leaving the young girl in the care of her father (Dwight Henry), a tough-as-nails type who fixates on molding his daughter into survivor like himself. Their impoverished area is ripe with an intangible sort of magic, wherein all living things are connected, and everything that transpires is seen through kaleidoscopic eyes. The trials of the world, imagined in the form of ancient mythical boars by young Hushpuppy, soon decencsend upon them, putting the girl's warrior training to the test, necessitating that she fight for survival.
There's no way that first-time director Benh Zeitlin didn't expect a backlash for being the face behind Beasts, and said backlash is upon us. A Caucasian of Jewish heritage from Queens, New York, Zeitlin's film could be seen as celebrating poverty, educational ignorance, and communal racial ambiguity, all things that one would imagine the film's creator wouldn't know much about. A resident of New Orleans since 2008, Zeitlin might not be as far outside of the culture he's attempting to replicate as many folks suggest, but he's close (not to mention the fact that his co-scribe and author of one-act that inspired the movie, Lucy Alibar, is something of a Southern Belle, and cute as a button). There were points in Beasts where I couldn't help but find the film a bit patronizing, all ugly faces, and dirty surfaces. It also stands as yet another entry in America's storied history of heaping praise on movies that show African-Americans toil through ill-fortune and filth, The Blind Side, Precious, and The Help serving as our annual entries for each of the last few years. Needless to say, I personally have some issues with the flick, which should really only serve to bolster its accomplishment when I describe it as hands down the best movie that 2012 has yet offered me.
Yes, there are a few troubling aspects, but they are laughably over-powered by all of the wonderment up on screen, especially near its opening and conclusion. Wallis, who was five when she auditioned for the part, delivers a performance that's pretty easy to get hyperbolic about, almost undoubtedly one of the best ever from a thespian of her age. The subtle emotions that her face registers, the physicality of the role, and the growth of her character from first frame to last are all riveting, and fully-realized. Henry is nearly her equal, alternating between masculine rage and fatherly affection with complete believability. Both, like the rest of the cast, are amateur actors making their cinematic debuts, and the authenticity of their performances proves one of the film's greatest strengths. Others include Ben Richardson's unfathomably gorgeous cinematography, and Zeitlin and Dan Romer's I'm-Going-To-Make-Your-Heart-Swell-So-Much-You'll-Worry-It-Might-Explode score.
The arguments presented by Beasts' detractors are a bit short-sighted. Here's a movie the celebrates diversity, perseverance, and community, and our knee-jerk reaction is to try to call Zeitlin a cultural tourist, as if his privilege has disallowed him any small understanding of the themes listed above. Yes, both he and Alibar are outsiders, but since when has heritage been a stipulation for creating art? Did Scorsese have any idea what it felt like to be a hulking, brooding boxing champion when he made Raging Bull? Do you think Michael Bay has ever seen a real gun when not on-set? These are two wildly talented young artists, a pair who built this film and its unique world view from the ground up on money they raised themselves; if you'd really rather have no racial diversity at the movies than have a whitey direct a film about the black experience, I can't help but think it's you who's being a touch regressive. Their creation is a thing of towering, staggering beauty, an ode to the joys and truths contained within life's most severe trials, and the most purely inspirational piece of cinema I've seen in a long, long time. If you can make it through the final 15 minutes with dry eyes, your tear-ducts are probably busted, or you're less human than Darth Vader. Don't listen to the haters: Beasts of the Southern Wild is a celebration of life itself, a joyous composition that ought to be seen by everyone, and then seen again.