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Beasts of the Southern Wild - Film Review

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by Richard Leathem (subscribe)
Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
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Beasts of the Southern Wild marks the feature debut of a remarkable talent in Benh Zeitlin, a truly original and fresh voice in cinema.

Set in the deep south of Louisiana, in a an area known as 'The Bathtub', Zeitlin immerses us into a community living in a land literally sinking into the sea. Our first reaction is, why would anyone want to live in such a perilous and inhospitable place? Its a testament to the director that by the end of the film, we don't want to leave it.

This world is seen through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a young girl who is pretty much left to her own devices, her mother having died some time back and her father often absent for reasons not fathomed by her. The roaming, low-angled camerawork and the emotive score are used to put us into Hushpuppy's head space. Through her we inhabit the environment around her, which is very much a character within the film, complete with raging storms, dramatically rising tides, and populated with the 'beasts' consisting of mythical pre-historic boar-type creatures, alligators, dogs, wolves and a few humans that could easily be regarded as just another species of animal at the mercy of the elements.

Its no surprise that Zeitlin comes from a documentary background, with a previous short about Hurricane Katrina being the launching pad for this film. Some of the people from that doco are still around for Beasts, with the rest of the cast being filled out with other non-professional actors. Towering above them all is Quvenzhane Wallis, who was only five when this was filmed. To say she is a natural is an understatement. She commands the screen with an assuredness way beyond her years.

In some ways Beasts feels like a debut feature. It has a roughness about it, which is in fact part of its appeal. It also features magical moments that feel like they occurred naturally and the camera was miraculously there to capture them, like when a sudden thunder burst causes the surface of a river to ripple from its impact. There are obvious comparisons to Terrence Malick's work, with the environmental lanscape being such a strong presence, the use of natural light and the restless camerawork. The story however is more like a pastoral Precious, albeit with a little more hope and joy.

This is a film that many people will fall in love with and is destined to go down as one of this year's best.

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Why? A sure bet for the Oscars next year.
Where: At selected cinemas around the country
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