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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Sundance Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Behn Zeitlin and made by Court 13, the New Orleans-based filmmaking collective of which he’s a part, is a fabulous piece of cinematic storytelling. The story itself is fascinating, intricate, and completely unique: The protagonist is Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives a free and wild existence in The Bathtub, an isolated Bayou community physically and symbolically cut off from the rest of the world by the levee. Hushpuppy lives with her wild-man father and the pack of lovable, independent miscreants who’ve carved out their own way of life in this singularly unique place; school in The Bathtub is where the ragtag pack of kids who live there learn about survival and the value of independence.

Hushpuppy’s dad, Wink, leaves her on her own much of the time and even has her live in her own house (a decrepit trailer propped up on oil drums) across from his shack. Living immersed in the nature of the things around her has taught her that all things are interconnected, so when a hurricane hits, threatening the very way of life the residents of The Bathtub have come to value, and her father simultaneously gets very ill, Hushpuppy cannot help but think there is a connection between the two. This spirited, ferocious little girl has to call on all her resources to find a way to make it through.

This is bold, remarkable filmmaking – particularly so when you consider that this collaboration is Zeitlin’s first feature (his 2008 short, Glory at Sea, was also daring and imaginative). Beyond what it is as a film, as a project overall Beasts of the Southern Wild speaks to what can happen when artists collaborate together to create something bold and daring, with a daunting production design and an unconventional script. It also speaks to how the Sundance Labs and funding grants can help a project like this get made to begin with, so kudos really need to be distributed all the way around. In today’s tight funding climate, that a film of this scope was even made at all is pretty remarkable; this is the kind of film that, for me, epitomizes what the spirit of a fest like Sundance is all about.

Quvenzhané Wallis, the young actress who plays Hushpuppy, was just five when she auditioned for the part, and her fierce, fiery performance here is nothing short of fantastic. Dwight Henry, another non-actor (he’s a baker by trade) is equally great as the unstable father who shows his love by trying to teach Hushpuppy how to survive on her own. Zeitlin directs his cast of non-professionals in a naturalistic style that, particularly early in the film, almost feels like a documentary of these people and this way of life, albeit one narrated by a six-year-old girl.

The film veers further into the fantastical and symbolic as we go along, but none of it feels superfluous. Every moment of this story drives Hushpuppy along the path of she needs to go down to be able to survive, whether the world makes her an orphan, melts glaciers, or confronts her with ancient, thawed beasts; it’s a fantastical journey tale, a coming-of-age tale, and a hero tale all spun together delightfully, making Beasts of the Southern Wild one of the most original, inventive and compelling films I’ve seen at Sundance not just this year, but all the years I’ve been coming here. This is the kind of gem for which I’d sit through countless more mundane films just hoping to come across. What a lovely, brilliant piece of filmmaking.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon