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Film Review

Beasts of the Southern Wild

In 1962, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, a meticulously researched look at poverty in America. Harrington claimed that up to one quarter of Americans were living in poverty, with few able to escape upward to the working class. The severest impact was on the children, from a literal lack of food to little schooling to terrible living conditions. Many credit Harrington's book with helping Lyndon Johnson make his War on Poverty a centerpiece of his legislative accomplishments. Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and other social welfare programs did reduce the poverty rate. Yet 50 years later, 15% of Americans, one out of six, live in poverty, a percentage that has substantially increased in the past 20 years as recessions, export of jobs, out right financial fraud, and reduced aid to the poor have taken their sad toll. These percentages are considerably higher in black communities. We are talking about over 40 million poor Americans, including at least one out of every five children in America. No other industrialized Western country has such a high poverty rate. No one who has spent any time in Appalachia, back woods Maine, much of the rural South, some inner cities, and/or many Indian reservations, is likely to forget the tableau of poverty. America is a rich country in every sense, and It is to our great shame that these conditions not only persist, but are increasing.

Real poverty is harder than any reader of this review can imagine, yet does not always crush the spirit. A young (b 1982) American film maker, Benh Zeitlin, has just made a magical film, tragic, yet inspiring: "Beasts of the Southern Wild". His tiny heroine, Hushpuppy, with her electric hair and indomitable spirit, has been reared by her sometime absentee father in a tiny poor Southern Louisiana town, known to the locals as Bathtub. Like many Mississippi Delta towns, Bathtub is nearly below sea level, and is threatened by an incoming storm. Hushpuppy's mother left when she was very young, for reasons that aren't clear, and her loving but often harsh father has tried to toughen her up. "Someday I'll be gone; you need to know how to feed yourself". She lives in a ramshackle trailer a hundred yards away from her father's even more dilapidated shack, with chickens and hogs having the run of the place. But Hushpuppy has learned to be resilient, and is determined to be her own man. She has internalized her father's repeated demands of "No crying", no matter what. Hushpuppy has a rich inner life, and sees visions that others can't see. Her imagination was ignited by a kindly local teacher, who describes the ice age wild oxen, aurochs, that are tattooed on her thighs like cave drawings. The teacher speaks a truth rarely heard anywhere: "You need to learn how to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are". But Hushpuppy's father is sick and this begins an odyssey as strange as that of Ulysses. One of the many unforgettable scenes is Hushpuppy motoring down the river in their boat made from a pickup truck bed floating on oil drums.

There is so much good about "Beasts of the Southern Wild" that it would take another page to describe, but the cinematography is lyric and gorgeous. A festival with fireworks and the children running with large sparklers is marvelous. Zeitlin intersperses the closeup looks at the people with scenes of the river in a tribute to the power of location shooting. Much of the footage was shot with hand held cameras, which works well, but there is also dramatic archival footage of the flood. The acting is remarkable, and uses mostly local, nonprofessional actors. Hushpuppy, played by 8 year old Quvenzhane Wallis, runs away with the film, despite a fine performance by her film father. And the locals are as colorful as you can imagine, even for the Delta. Hushpuppy narrates much of the film in a very poignant way; she is determined to prevail and is certain that "scientists millions of years from now will know that there was a Hushpuppy who lived in Bathtub". Only thirty minutes into the film it is clear that Wallis will be nominated for Best Actress. The music is also wonderful: appropriate and affecting with a mixture of Zydeco and Cajun, with triumphal scores.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is like no other film, in the best sense, and it is astonishing that this is the first feature film made by Zeitlin, who also co-wrote the screen play and music. His film is brilliant in every sense, so rich and powerful, and so quintessential American, that I saw it twice, loving it even more the second time. This is a must see on the big screen and packs so much into its brief 91 minutes. In the city, playing at the Embarcadero and the Bridge, in Marin at the Rafael, and in the East Bay at the California.

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