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Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
What a gorgeous film. I saw this last Saturday night and was instantly in love. With family from the bayou, which is where this film takes place, I marveled at how rich and accurate the dialog was. The acting lacked in several of the supporting parts, but wow! there was no acting prowess lacking in the two main characterizations of the film (I also enjoyed the acting by Gina Montana as Miss Bathsheeba).
Dwight Henry is truly something in his turn as the protagonist Hushpuppy's father, Wink. He is convincing in every facet of his reasonably complex portrayal of a confused and directionless father. He is frightening when angry, smile-inducing when kind, and heartbreaking when both. You may say, "Well, he's just playing himself." In response, "He's not. He may be a father, but he lives in New Orleans and had to be convinced to audition because he couldn't afford to not work at the small bakery he owns in the 7th Ward to go across the street and read for the producers and director." He's a revelation who has unfortunately already stated that regardless of what happens, he's pretty much done acting. What a shame.
Anyway moving on, the real revelation is Quvenzhane Wallis as the protagonist, a girl named Hushpuppy. Never having acted before, she really is something else. Many child acting performances receive acclaim because they are children and you simply don't expect children to be able to act at all much less some. In Wallis's case, she, a 9 year old I believe, deserves any award nominations and perhaps wins she may receive somewhere down the line this year. She acts better than half the paid bodies on celluloid these days and she too lives a normal life in a town, not one in the swamp. The only comparable performance to which I can liken hers in terms of prowess and general effect is that of 9-year- old Justin Henry and the fabulous portrayal he gave in Kramer vs. Kramer. Garland in The Wizard of Oz is too old as is Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The difference between Wallis and Henry, however, is that Henry was a supporting player in a film in which his other 3 main actors were nominated for acting Oscars, with Hoffman and Streep winning and Alexander losing to Streep. Henry, of course, lost to Douglas though he should have lost to Duvall instead. Conversely, Wallis is required to carry an entire film. She is present in probably 80% of the fantastic film and she is magnetic. I don't usually have an issue with voice-overs in a film, but there are a few instances where I have almost pulled my hair out because they were so bad. Not the case here. Much of Wallis's lines, especially early on, are said via voice-over. This just makes Wallis's job even more difficult. She has to act convincingly without saying much of anything and simultaneously has to make the voice-over sound interesting so that people don't bludgeon themselves to death. It's an understatement to say that she succeeds completely. Her voice-over melds eerily perfectly with everything that she does on screen, something that the cinematographer, film editor, and sound editor also all deserve major kudos for.
One more thing, first-time director Benh Zeitlin's direction is brilliant, though elongated at a few points. His ability to tell the story effectively basically nullifies every issue with his pacing. Many films with child protagonists are hard to follow because the director fails to effectively engulf the viewer in the child's point of view. Therefore, the following "childish" plot action is seen as confusing or stupid or both. Zeitlin and his amazingly competent crew completely succeed at bringing the viewer in the mind of Hushpuppy. We see her father like she sees her father. We see Miss Bathsheeba like she sees Miss Bathsheeba. The sharply divided opinions about the shaky camera- work are unnecessary. The camera work is shaky, but so it the mind of a child. Their minds are constantly flitting back and forth between one thing and the next, they're swaying to and fro, like the camera. Just another way to interpret the inventive camera work is this: Hushpuppy is trying to find her place in the world just like she is trying to find her place in the camera view.
In closing, Benh Zeitlin, please work your magic many times again, preferably sometime soon. This is the best film of the year thus far, and I will be hard pressed to keep my mind open enough to find a film that I think is better than this come September, October, November, and December Oscar season.