The 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival opened in Auckland last Thursday evening with Beasts of the Southern Wild, one of the most widely acclaimed films of the year so far. It screened at a packed Civic theatre – preceded by an introduction by festival director Bill Gosden and Auckland Mayor Len Brown – and was immediately followed by rapturous applause. Read below for my review, and keep checking back for further updates and reviews from the festival.
New Orleans-based filmmaker Benh Zeitlin makes his feature debut with the enchanting Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film so stunning, unique and full of imagination that it seems to come out of nowhere. The film took out the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as the Camera D’or award for best first film at Cannes and has been enjoying nearly unanimous critical praise, and it’s not difficult to see why. Based on a play by co-writer Lucy Alibar, Beasts tells the story of a rambunctious, precocious six-year-old girl called Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who exists on the brink of orphanhood in the idyllic and harsh bayou community The Bathtub. Populated by proud outcasts, including her anguished but loving father Wink (Dwight Henry), The Bathtub is cut off from the rest of Louisiana by a sprawling levee and threatened by a catastrophic, Hurricane Katrina-esque storm. Hushpuppy and her fellow residents are self-sufficient, resourceful survivors who spend their days fishing, scavenging and drinking. They believe in a folk religion which prophesizes that the Aurochs — a fearsome species of ancient giant boars that were frozen in the South Pole during the Ice Age – will be unleashed by global warming.
From the earliest scenes, it’s evident that Hushpuppy is connected to the nature that surrounds her; striking images of lush green surroundings and bountiful wildlife pass as she narrates, describing her home as “the prettiest place on Earth.” This particular aesthetic is of course Terrence Malick’s trademark, and The Tree of Life director’s influence is felt throughout. Beasts‘ magic-realism and naïvety also brings to mind Where the Wild Things Are, and its determined, party-loving characters occasionally recall those of Treme. The cast of nonprofessional actors Zeitlin gathered here are sensational, especially the two leads: the soulful, dignified Henry brings the weight of real life experience to his role, and Wallis is unbelievably charismatic and commanding for such a young actress.
While Beasts is not without its share of flaws — it sometimes fails to engage on an emotional level, and could be criticised for mimicking Malick’s style too closely — this is such an imaginative, idiosyncratic and utterly spellbinding vision that any such issues are made insignificant. The striking, gorgeously-shot visuals (by cinematographer Ben Richardson), ethereal Cajun score (by Zeitlin and Dan Romer) and nicely rendered creature effects are all first-rate for such an indie film, but Beasts is truly unforgettable thanks to its limitless imagination and remarkable performances. This is one of the most refreshing films of the year, and it announces the arrival of some serious talent.
For more info and ticketing details on the 2012 NZIFF, head to their website.