(The amazing Quvenzhané Wallis in the stunning title sequence of Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, the presumptive favorite for the grand jury prize in the dramatic competition. Image courtesy of Sundance Film festival.)
Festivals are measured in time but evaluation and assessment, especially critically, are typically rendered more instantaneously.
It is natural, especially given the parochialism central to Sundance, to explicate all manner of connections and uncork the themes and patterns underlining the various programs. As a print “junkie,” or traditionalist about viewing formats, I am less than sanguine about the near disappearance of film formats. It is hardly coincidental the two best competition films, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On, were both photographed in Super 16-millimeter.
One of the defining (and very welcome) hallmarks of this year's festival, and another reason to like these two films, is their innate liberation from plot, or at the very least, the kind of cause and effect, conflict-driven tyranny of story that dominate narrative filmmaking. Each film possesses a visual wonder and daring about them, in wholly different registers, but they also have a freedom and excitement and an unpredictability.
Zeitlin’s Beasts is a fabulous and visually gorgeous mélange of Faulkner’s Wild Palms, Jean Renoir’s The Southerner, early Terrence Malick and the only Elia Kazan film, Wild River, still worth talking about. Adapted by Zeitlin with co-scenarist Lucy Alibar from her play, the movie is a magic realist fable unfolding off the southern coast of Louisiana, in a mysterious and evocatively drawn community known colloquially as "the Bathtub."
The movie’s tough-minded, sharp young six-year old protagonist Hushpuppy (the extraordinary young performer Quvenzhané Wallis, like the rest of the cast a nonprofessional) lives with her drunken, sometimes abusive father, Wink (Dwight Henry).
The work is suffused with vivid and colorful characters, all manner of the dispossessed, sharecroppers, farmers and itinerant musicians that through landscape, history and imaginative fury suggest a apocryphal variant of Faulkner’s own Yoknapatawpha County. The story oscillates between the extremes of the harsh material world binding Hushpuppy and the rest of the inhabitants to the devastated landscape threatened by an impending storm and her wild and haunted imagination.
Her mother gone, having "floated away," and her father not always reliable (without hammer the point home, the father’s messy and angered state is revealed), Hushpuppy exists in a state of perpetual motion. The story is anecdotal and discursive and tethered by a succession of incidents and episodes that taken together achieve an impossibly beautiful and majestic purity and spontaneity.
The emotional involvement means disentangling the actual and the imagined; the movie is a dialectic that invites multiple ways of looking and thinking about it. Most impressively, Zeitlin (whom I learned from reading Manohla Dargis) studied with the great Czech animator Jan Svankmajer) creates a distinct and unstable world visually.
The movie has two great echoing images, the extraordinary title sequence of Hushpuppy, holding roman candles in each hand as she sprints forward and the climatic transcendent image of the young girl and rest of her dispossessed community seeking their own sense of the divine.
The imagery and the child’s narration obviously invoke Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven. The recurrent use of water as a agent of re-birth and cleansing illustrates the dominant themes of freedom and escape (this place, the girl says of a detention facility, is less a prison than a “fish tank without any water”).
The girl’s imagination passes through time and space, conjuring Stone Age beasts and most memorably, a floating bordello. Many of the finest moments are again small, private and beautiful, like the father’s stark instructions on how to capture a catfish barehanded. Ben Richardson’s cinematography is eerily beautiful and declarative.
I saw it twice, and look forward to another look. It is the kind of film you already can never get enough of.