Sundance 2012. Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

"Could serve as a poster child for everything American independent cinema aspires to be but so seldom is."
David Hudson
The DailyBeasts of the Southern Wild

"It doesn't happen often here, but it's a heady experience when it does," blogs the Boston Globe's Ty Burr: "An unknown Sundance movie that grips you from its very first images, follows through on its promise (and even raises the stakes), then sends you out dazed with other festivalgoers to wonder if you all witnessed the same minor miracle. The movie is Beasts of the Southern Wild, the director is newcomer Benh Zeitlin, and it's a work of down-home magical realism that, at its best, makes you see with new eyes."

"One of the most striking films ever to debut at the Sundance Film Festival," writes the Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy, "Beasts of the Southern Wild is a poetic evocation of an endangered way of life and a surging paean to human resilience and self-reliance. Shot along the southernmost fringes of Louisiana, cast with nonactors and absolutely teeming with creativity in every aspect of its being, Benh Zeitlin's directorial debut could serve as a poster child for everything American independent cinema aspires to be but so seldom is."

IndieWIRE's Eric Kohn: "Zeitlin's lavish setting is an imaginary community called 'The Bathtub' off the coast of Southern Louisiana, where a six-year-old African-American girl named Hushpuppy (a stunningly committed performance from newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) lives on the swampier side of a levee with her strict father Wink (Dwight Henry), who relishes his daughter with hyperbolic tales of her absent mother. As Wink suffers from a terminal illness, Hushpuppy's reality gradually dissolves, a transition Zeitlin renders with a fantastic eye for natural wonder. The whole movie inhabits Hushpuppy's outlook, as she listens to those around her and draws colorful conclusions."

TheWrap's Steve Pond suggests that Beasts is "a movie, you could say, for people who think Treme doesn't have enough gumbo, Take Shelter could use more apocalypse, Where the Wild Things Are isn't wild enough and When the Levees Broke could have done with a few prehistoric creatures rampaging through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina."

"Rooftop Films (in conjunction with Eastern Effects) gave a grant to Beasts, and I visited the Louisiana locations during filming," reports Mark Elijah Rosenberg. "It was like a Fitzcarraldo-era Werner Herzog set, only everyone was having fun. Protest parades, hospital rebellions, island-wide parties were staged with gusto by every available hand — and there were many. Instead of building a houseboat set on land and faking the floating, I saw art department kids waist-deep in swamp water building a boat that actually floated. Rather than computer animate some impossible animals, I watched as the team trained and costumed mysterious real animals (they have asked me to keep secret). Instead of setting a table with easy-to-clean, odorless craypaper crustaceans, the team had us shelling and cooking real crabs and crawfish (salvaged from some of the last harvests in post BP-oil spill waters)…. What you have is a constant string of epic scenes. A swelling crescendo of emotions, riotous laughter, focused rage, brutal tenderness."

More from Ryland Aldrich (Twitch), Gregory Ellwood (HitFix) and Harlan Jacobson (Boston Phoenix). Interviews with Zeitlin: Bridgette Bates (Sundance), Alexandra Byer (Filmmaker) and indieWIRE.

IndieWIRE's Dana Harris reports that producers Josh Penn and Dan Janvey "received the inaugural Sundance Institute Indian Paintbrush Producer’s Award and its accompanying $10,000 grant at the annual Producers Lunch" yesterday afternoon and, as of last night, according to THR's Jay Fernandez and Daniel Miller, five distributors are competing to pick up the film.

Update, 1/24: EW's Anthony Breznican reports that Fox Searchlight's made the acquisition.

Updates, 1/25: Beasts is "like a live-action Miyazaki film, with Days of Heaven narration," suggests the AV Club's Noel Murray. "In striving to create a new space that's not quite real and not quite fantastical, Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar (who originated this project as a play) leave aside conventional character motivation and plot, allowing the story to drift from incident to incident, at times aimlessly." It all "culminates in a thrilling finale, and a last shot that's one of the damnedest things I've ever seen on a screen, affirming the movie's notion that the most important task that we undertake is to leave our own mark, to be seen for generations to come."

"Where so many films here at Sundance posit life on Earth circa now as a battle to stave off decline, Beasts both embraces that battle, and infantilizes it," writes the LA Weekly's Karina Longworth. "That's not necessarily a pejorative — when Hushpuppy says something like, 'The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right, and if you can fix the broken piece, everything can go right back,' her childlike understanding of returning to an old normal could double for the allegedly adult worldviews of what seems like half the films here. The film is never less than a wonder to look at; it's also rarely anything more."

James Rocchi for the Playlist: "Beasts of the Southern Wild is as unique as it is uneven, as unforgettable as it is uncomfortable, and trembles with the energy, bravura and passion of director Zeitlin, his cast and his crew like some rough animal snorting and stamping with horrible wonder and the possibility of both loss and understanding."

Update, 1/26: For the Guardian's Damon Wise, Beasts "stands out like a whirling peyote-crazed medicine man in this year's lineup."

Update, 1/28: "It's hard not to think that Searchlight's success with The Tree of Life helped sway the producers of the heavily courted Beasts of the Southern Wild to throw in with the company," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. Zeitlin is "a Queens native who grew up in Westchester County, graduated from Wesleyan University and counts among his influences Mr Malick, John Cassavetes and Emir Kusturica. After a stint working in the Czech Republic for another inspiration, the animator Jan Svankmajer, Mr Zeitlin made his way, post-Katrina, to southern Louisiana, where he shot Beasts with a collective called Court 13…. Shot on Super 16-millimeter film, Beasts of the Southern Wild is hauntingly beautiful both visually and in the tenderness it shows toward the characters, who live on the edge and perhaps somewhat in Hushpuppy's head."

Updates, 1/29: For Patrick Z McGavin, 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."

Or: "This is the film you might get if Terry Gilliam conflated David Gordon Green's George Washington with Alice in Wonderland," suggests Simon Abrams at the House Next Door.

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