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The Best Film of 2012 So Far—By Far

May 24, 2012

Mark your calendars: A month from Sunday, the best film I’ve seen this year will hit theaters. It’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie so brilliantly original, it defies categorization, but I’ll try. Imagine a mashup of Treme, Sling Blade and Where the Wild Things Are—an outlandish yet deeply down-to-earth tale told by the most endearingly authentic young Southern narrator since To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Scout.

That would be Hushpuppy, played by the remarkable Quvenzhané Wallis. (Remember that name, even if you can’t spell it—she could become the youngest Oscar winner ever.) She lives with her physically and possibly mentally ill father, Wink (Dwight Henry, also a shoo-in for an Oscar nod), in a ramshackle trailer, cut off from the grid and any other “civilization.” The neighboring alcoholics, hand-fisherman and abandoned children refer to their frequently flooded region as “the Bathtub.” Okay, here’s where it really starts to get strange: One day, the polar ice caps melt, washing away most of the community—and unleashing the titular beasts, giant boar-like creatures that threaten the survivors’ existence.

Believe it or not, this surreal, sci-fi twist is woven in with the other threads of the story seamlessly and organically. This is the movie Terrence Malick wishes he could’ve made with the wildly overrated Tree of Life—it’s got prehistoric creatures but no pretentiousness. And no distractingly gorgeous movie stars. Plus, it’s nearly an hour shorter than Malick’s overgrown Tree.

With its grittily realistic depiction of the African-American South, Beasts also feels like a corrective to the prettified Dixieland of The Help. I’d be tempted to call this movie The Helpless, except its downtrodden characters are anything but. They love their garbage-strewn homes and don’t want to leave them for the antiseptic “Open Arms” shelters where the government wants to dump them. In one of the many beautifully literary passages of the script—cowritten by director Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on her play Juicy and Delicious—Hushpuppy describes the facility as resembling “a fishtank with no water.”

Lest this sound depressing or, even worse, “good for you,” let me reassure you there are moments of great joy amid the squalor. It’s a cinematic gumbo for all the senses—a plethora of breathtaking visuals and soul-stirring music, including compositions by the multi-talented Zeitlin and a perfectly chosen closing track, Fats Waller’s “It Will Have to Do Until the Real Thing Comes Along.”

That’s what I’ve been saying all year at the movies, but now, the real thing has come along. In one scene, a grizzled boatsman offers Hushpuppy a chicken biscuit, then shows her the mountain of wrappers he’s saved of all the chicken biscuits he’s eaten in his life. He’s kept them to remind himself of what he was like when he was eating them and explains that it makes him feel “cohesive.” Replies Hushpuppy, “I want to be cohesive.” And that’s what Beasts of the Southern Wild is, too—magnificently so. Throughout the movie, Hushpuppy listens to the heartbeats of various creatures, including her critically ill father. That pulse you hear is the heartbeat of American independent cinema, alive and well.

Are you excited to see Beasts of the Southern Wild unleashed? Roar out a comment!

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