Open Mic

A Movie to Bring Out the Beast in You. The Five-Year-Old, Oprah and Obama. Familiar Yet Astonishingly Original

Chuck Ross Posted August 23, 2012 at 10:32 PM

Oh God, I thought to myself, here we go again. I was being dragged to a movie that I knew I’d hate.

It had several things going against it.

First, it had won a major award at the Cannes Film Festival. In my experience, more often than not, those were movies I usually found “arty” in the worst possible way: pretentious AND boring.

Then I had heard it was shot in 16mm with a handheld camera. Oh no. Shades of the countless hours we had to sit through my parents' home movies taken throughout my young childhood. Cute and OK the first time around, then increasingly squirm inducing. Commercial movies shot in 16mm with a handheld camera signal not only pretentious and boring, but are nausea-inducing as well. This was just getting better and better.

Next, I was told that the star was a kid, about 5-6 years old. Boy, this movie is just screaming danger city. I’m sorry. Call me Mr. Mean, but after about five minutes I was done with the “cuteness” of Macaulay Culkin in those “Home Alone” movies. I was the guy rooting for the burglars.

As it turned out, the movie I was being dragged to actually was overwhelming -- but in a good way. It was both awesome and awe-inspiring. It’s called “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the manner of this beast is a raw, emotional brute that shows off human foibles and follies in the most noble of ways.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a gift to us created by Benh Zeitlin and his colleagues. He’s 29 years old, and he’s the movie’s director and co-scenarist. It’s also his first full-length, nationally distributed movie.

Now, imagine this: The president of the United States sees “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and mentions how much he likes it to the most influential person on TV in the last quarter-century, Oprah Winfrey. Oprah then calls you, the film’s director, and says she wants to interview you and your colleagues who made the movie, on TV.

Well, that really happened, And as exciting as this must have been for Zeitlin and his colleagues, the real beneficiaries of this series of events are us, the audience, as we can see them interviewed by the master, Oprah.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is about is a little girl and her dad. It takes place near New Orleans, in a place called the Bathtub, and it’s about how this little girl and her dad live and survive.

Knowing that, I’ve really told you nothing about the movie. It’s like knowing that “Citizen Kane” is about a newspaper tycoon.

I really don’t want to tell you much more about the movie. I want you to run out and see it this weekend, which may be difficult if you don’t live in or near a major city, because the movie is only playing in about 230 theaters across the country. Since its released on June 29, during its peak week the movie was only in 318 theaters.

The movie cost about $1.8 million to make, I’ve read -- which is peanuts for a movie. It was bought by Fox’s art house Fox Searchlight distribution brand for about $2 million. And thus far it’s taken in about $8 million at the box office, which is about what a summer blockbuster like “The Amazing Spider-Man” made in what, its first 10 minutes?

But you’ll be vastly more rewarded by seeing the amazing “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” A few more things about it: The heart of the movie is the character Hushpuppy, played by a little girl, Quvenzhané Wallis, who was five when she first auditioned for the movie and was mostly six years old during its filming. She wasn’t an actor before making this movie. Quvenzhané is pronounced Qua Van Jah Nay, and her nickname is Nazie. On Oprah’s website I learned that her name “comes from the Swahili word for ‘fairy' or 'nymph.' ” I truly believe the performance by this 6-year-old is the one to beat for the Oscar this year.

Her performance is matched by the astonishing movie craft exhibited by another non-actor in the cast, Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s dad, Wink. Before being talked into playing the role Henry was a baker, whom the filmmakers met when they’d hang around and eat snacks at his bakery.

The cinematography in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is astounding. Here’s how it’s described at PostLab.com: “The textures, compositions and overall cinema verite style successfully fuse a painterly, expressive visual palette with a documentary sensibility.” Or, as The New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott put it, there’s “rugged, ragged beauty in nearly every shot.”

The reason I want you to rush out to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” either today, Friday, Aug. 24, or tomorrow, Saturday, Aug. 25, is because Oprah is devoting her entire “Super Soul Sunday” show this Sunday morning , Aug. 26 (11 a.m, ET/PT), to the movie. Oprah says it’s her new favorite movie, and I can’t wait to see her show about it. At the end of this column there’s a preview clip Oprah has made for the show. [Update 8-26-2012 at 4:44 p.m. PT. The "Super Soul Sunday" about "Beasts of the Southern Wild" will be repeated on OWN on Sunday morning, Sept. 2, 2012 at 10 a.m. ET/PT]

I want to conclude with a few more remarks A.O. Scott has written about “Beasts of the Southern Wild":

“[I]ts impact, its glory, is sensory rather than cerebral. Let me try out an analogy. Discovering this movie is like stumbling into a bar and encountering a band you’ve never heard of playing a kind of music that you can’t quite identify. Nor can you figure out how the musicians learned to play the way they do, with such fire and mastery. Did they pick it up from their grandparents, study at a conservatory, watch instructional videos on the Internet or just somehow make it all up? Are you witnessing the blossoming of authenticity or the triumph of artifice?

“Those are interesting questions. They are also irrelevant, because right now you are transported by an irresistible rhythm and moved by a melody that is profoundly, almost primally, familiar, even though you are sure you have never heard anything like it before.”

Please, do yourself a favor: Go see this movie!