[A series of daily updates on screenings at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. For more follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter @GeoffBerkshire.]
From hallmarks like "sex, lies and videotape" and "Reservoir Dogs" to the more recent "Precious" and "Winter's Bone," there are certain titles that simply rise above festival hype to cement Sundance's status as the place for bold, unforgettable discoveries. That's definitely the case for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," an entirely unique vision that sweeps viewers away with energy, attitude and a full, vibrant, sense of life.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a Southern delta community known as "The Bathtub." "Beasts" may already sound too precious for its own good, but the film never gets bogged down in quirkiness or whimsy. It's a visceral and invigorating accomplishment, bursting off the screen with dynamic cinematography, propulsive music selections and boatloads of raw emotion.
We experience the entire film from Hushpuppy's point of view—an indomitable young girl who has already lost her mother, worries about losing her father, and lives in fear of the polar ice caps melting and wiping out her entire world. The world of the Bathtub itself is like few others ever captured on screen, its dirt poor but self-sufficient residents leading a sort of tribal existence, in tune with nature, out of touch with mass society. When storms come (à la Hurricane Katrina) they stick them out, and somehow survive.
Hushpuppy feels her connection not only to nature and animals ("Everyone's made out of meat") but also to the prehistoric era, represented throughout the film by her interest in cave drawings and—more fancifully—prehistoric beasts called aurochs that have been released from the ice caps and make their way toward the Bathtub…at least in Hushpuppy's mind. The difference between what's real and what lives in the imagination of our six-year-old heroine is not always clear, but it's all delivered with a beautifully assured sense of wonder.
It's all the more impressive that such a confident and resourceful film comes from a first-timer; writer-director Benh Zeitlin previously impressed Sundance audiences with the Hurricane Katrina inspired short "Glory at Sea." He collaborated on the screenplay for "Beasts" with Lucy Alibar and worked with a cast and crew of mostly non-professionals (both Wallis and Henry make genuinely astonishing screen debuts). That freshness may very well be key to the film's creative success. There's a feeling of genuine enthusiasm and ingenuity in their work here, as if everyone involved was truly discovering the power and potential of filmmaking for the first time.
Quick hits on more Sundance 2012 titles:
- "Celeste and Jesse Forever": Although she co-stars on NBC's "Parks and Recreation" and had notable supporting roles in "The Social Network," "The Muppets" and "I Love You Man," Rashida Jones still isn't exactly a major star. But she gets a full-fledged star role here, even if it took co-writing the script (with actor and friend Will McCormack) to make it happen.
The story of a divorced couple (Jones, Andy Samberg) who remain so close their friends worry for their mental health, is one of those cutesy, clever indie dramedies that deliver a few insights into romantic relationships but ultimately fade quickly from memory. There's a lot going on in the busy narrative—Elijah Wood is Jones' flamboyantly gay colleague, Emma Roberts is a trashy Ke$ha-esque pop star, Chris Messina is one of several potential new love interests—and it the main reason it succeeds at all is Jones' grounded efforts at the center. She deserves even better than she created for herself.
- "Keep the Lights On": Filmmaker Ira Sachs won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize in 2005 for the little-seen drama "Forty Shades of Blue," and returns with this autobiographical portrait of a gay couple's tortured on-and-off decade-long relationship. Danish filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and drug addict Paul (Zachary Booth) keep getting together and falling apart, but the repetitive, unpleasant film never sells the heartbreak of their tumultuous connection. It's too focused on Erik (the stand-in for Sachs) without showing much interest in developing Paul beyond his addiction, which turns the movie into a look at a man addicted to a man addicted to drugs. Still, there's bound to be an appreciative niche audience for a serious-minded, artfully made gay drama with an abundance of racy sex scenes.
- "Simon Killer": Also artfully-made with even racier sex scenes, this pseudo-Euro-style "psychological thriller" tracks an American college grad (Brady Corbet) adrift in Paris. We know he's messed up because he likes kinky sex, dancing to electronic music and is frequently filmed by director Antonio Campos ("Afterschool") from behind or below the shoulders. Also, because the movie is called "Simon Killer." With a cryptic narrative, deliberate pace and the sort of rigorous visual style some hail as hypnotic while others bash as tediously pretentious, the film has been unofficially anointed Sundance's most polarizing title. It's certainly worth a look for arthouse aficionados, but I'm not convinced there's any substance beneath the style.
Check out the full collection of 2012 Sundance Film Festival diaries