Monday, 29 October 2012

A child's-eye view of apocalypse

It's safe to say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is a pretty unique film - at the very least in terms of what usually appears in cinemas our way. It's part family drama, part climate change fable and part meditation on community. But its principle strength is viewing all these various facets from the imaginatively-skewed perspective of a child living through them. The child, Hushpuppy, has an amphibious and anarchic childhood in the "Bathtub", an inundated area of swampland at the very edge of (a generally unseen) civilisation. Already largely underwater - hence its name - periodic storms threaten to finish the job, and Hushpuppy's tumultuous, knockabout life with her father is further imperilled by him gradually succumbing to illness. But in Hushpuppy's mind, her world is also threatened by the mysterious, ice-age aurochs that she's heard about at school, and infused with the mystery of her long-departed mother.

The film reviewer's shorthand for a film like this is probably something like "lyrical", but "magical" seems a popular one-word summary judging from the reviews (and posters; see above!) that I've come across. And they're right. It's a thoroughly enjoyable and affecting tale made wholly memorable by the performances of both central actors, particularly the child playing Hushpuppy. She's simply fantastic. And it does a brilliant job of playing the adult world's trouble and strife as the backdrop to the child's world of exploration and imagination. One touch I particularly liked was that the aurochs, though actually wild cattle in reality (now sadly extinct), are imagined by Hushpuppy (and visualised in the film) as something more akin to giant-sized boars because of her family's "pet" boar.

And, of course, any film that attempts to dramatise climate change - especially in a non-preachy way that's doesn't frighten the horses - gets the big thumbs up from me. Yes, it's too soft on the Bathtub's benign anarchy, and a little hard on the heavy-handed efforts of the authorities to help its residents, but it's a pretty honest and fresh presentation of a not unlikely future. A future that, as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the Eastern Seaboard, doesn't seem quite as far off anymore.

Grade: A- (high +2 on the Leeper Scale)

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