Magazine article The Spectator

Cinema Shrub of Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Cinema Shrub of Life

Article excerpt

Beasts of the Southern Wild 12A, key cities You know how it is: you wake up in your knock-down corrugated shack, surrounded by chickens and dogs and pigs, before staggering out into the morning sun to press the animals against your ear, listening to their heartbeats. No, sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. You probably don't know how it is, and neither did I before watching Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild. But this is what this film does to its viewer right from the off. It depicts a world so vivid and immediate that two dimensions naturally become three, without the need for any fancy Hollywood stereoscopics.

It is, actually, our six-year-old heroine Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) who tunes into the ba-dum, ba-dum of the animals' hearts. We just follow her, beat by beat, through a camera lens that's up-close and shaky. It's almost as if we're in the same mud that she's trudging through, that the pigs are snuffling in, that the chickens are skittering across - and that's surely the point. As another character soon says, 'Meat, meat, meat, every animal is made of meat.' We're all in the same mud, scrabbling around to eat and avoid being eaten. This is, as Elton John didn't quite put it, a regular Circle of Strife.

And there really is a lot of strife in this world. Beasts of the Southern Wild is set in the indeterminate future, when rising sea levels threaten to consume entire swathes of the southern United States. Hushpuppy herself lives in a broken-down community, somewhere around Louisiana, on the wrong side of the levees protecting the mainland from the coming flood. It's the kind of place where most things are made of rusty oil drums, and where it's easier to find gut-rot whiskey than clean water. And, to top it all off, there's a storm a-brewing.

Whoa, hold on, is this just some dreary polemic about global warming and oil and Bush and all that? It may look like it on paper, but it doesn't turn out that way on screen. In everything, from its characters to its cinematography, Beasts of the Southern Wild is too colourful to be counted as dreary.

And it's not nearly angry enough to be a polemic. Apart from one clumsy moment - an ice-sheet collapses as we're told in voiceover that 'the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right' - this film conveys its ideas gently and unobtrusively. …

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