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Wizard of Oz in the slums of New Orleans

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Affluent white Americans love poor black saints -- at least on the big screen.

Last year witnessed the rise of civil rights soap dish, The Help. The year before saw the elevation of Precious -- a movie that treated its central character like a pinata. And before all that, there was The Green Mile, The Color Purple and a whole rainbow of liberal-minded movies about race featuring noble black characters struggling to negotiate the burdens of everyday existence with heroic stoicism.

Apparently, black people make the very best victims -- which is why Beasts of the Southern Wild is both a victory and a complete failure.

The grand prize winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild is already being hailed as a frontrunner for awards season, and if history proves correct, it stands an excellent chance of scoring major hardware thanks to its appropriation of impoverished suffering.

Set in the very ashpit of America's melting pot, New Orleans, this feature debut from Wesleyan grad Benh Zeitlin tells the story of a six-year-old living in absolute squalor.

Hushpuppy, played here by untrained amateur Quvenzhané Wallis, lives in "The Bathtub" with her father Wink (baker-turned-actor Dwight Henry).

Now, for those unfamiliar with the muddy banks of the Mississippi, the South Coast and the sweaty landscapes of Louisiana, The Bathtub can be a general term for the bayou, but here it's the name for a fictional community of abject hillbillies -- another popular motif in American art film (see another Sundance winner, Winter's Bone).

When we first meet Hushpuppy and her daddy Wink, they seem to be living an almost Eden-like existence -- albeit in a pile of junk, surrounded by rusty debris.

Hushpuppy is a free spirit. She wanders amid the twisted roots and washed-up garbage wearing her rubber boots and underpants, holding various creatures up to her ear, listening for their thumping heartbeat.

Yes. Of course it's symbolic, because Hushpuppy is a pure soul. Stripped of 21st-century artifice as a result of her impossibly inconsequential social position, Hushpuppy can commune with the base elements of existence. She's connected to the universe, and Zeitlin makes us well aware of her innocent state in this soggy Eden scene after scene.

Whether she's picking up animals and putting them to her ear, picking up junk and turning it into art, or trying to pick up daddy when he falls down drunk, Hushpuppy is a child of the spheres who lives in the moment.

She is cute, smart and incredibly strong -- all of which makes her a natural hero. Yet, she is also incredibly vulnerable because she is only six years old, lives in a dilapidated trailer with her alcoholic father and pines for her absent mother who disappeared when Hushpuppy was just a baby.

Only a hungry wet dog could generate more screen empathy, but things grow even darker for our pint-sized protagonist: Her dad seems rather ill with a serious medical condition and there's a big storm brewing off the coast that could flood The Bathtub, and drown its clutch of residents.

Director-writer Zeitlin is content to give us impressions of plot more than a milk run of emotional waypoints, and it fits because the film is rooted more in epic tradition than kitchen sink -- regardless of the human pathos sloshing around in The Bathtub.

Everything we see is infused with a sense of childlike fantasy as well as a sense of timeless drama, and it lends the whole movie an otherworldy aspect as it manages to combine a verite documentary feel with surreal, computer-generated tableaus.

There are moments in Zeitlin's piece where the imagery is so beautiful and bizarre, it completely transcends all sticky suspicions of white guilt because it so fully becomes a fairy tale from another universe.

With little Hushpuppy as our mud-caked princess, we embark on an odyssey that pulls us into the eye of the hurricane.

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Hushpuppy needs to find friends if she's going to survive, and Zeitlin offers up everything from fleshy versions of the Tin Man to besotted versions of the Scarecrow.

He even gives us a good witch or two in the form of an elementary school teacher who doubles as a shaman, but more than anything, he brings on the monsters of the subconscious: the beasts of the southern wild.

These "beasts" are depicted as running boars with giant teeth and horns. They stampede through the frame at specific moments, usually when Hushpuppy's world is on the verge of permanent transformation.

These beasts are untamed, oddly beautiful, and represent the pure but threatened spirit of The Bathtub denizens. They look incredible on screen, and Zeitlin saves their appearance to conjure all the right moments of awe.

-- Postmedia News

Other voices

Selected excerpts from reviews of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Beasts of the Southern Wild marks one of the most auspicious American directorial debuts in years.

-- Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail

It hews to no esthetic or political party line. It is simply life, seen through the kaleidoscope eyes of a brave, imaginative child.

-- Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

It's unlike any film you've seen.

-- Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic

It's as if you're looking out at new land you've never seen before, or an old one you haven't really paid attention to.

-- Peter Howell, Toronto Star

Here is why some of us love the movies: They let you see with brand new eyes.

-- Ty Burr, Boston Globe

The filmmaker comes from a perspective of great empathy and considerable skill. But he's a pile driver as a dramatist.

-- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

This film is a remarkable creation, imagining a self-reliant community without the safety nets of the industrialized world.

-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

[An] extraordinary southern gothic.

-- J. R. Jones, Chicago Reader

In filmmaking, as in Hushpuppy's world, everything must fit together just right. And in Beasts of the Southern Wild, everything does.

-- Charlie McCollum, San Jose Mercury News

Spielberg will love this film, if he doesn't already. Zeitlin's ability to create a believable world out of seemingly impossible ingredients is just that good.

-- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com

That little girl's face holds you.

-- David Edelstein, NPR

Movies that mix magic and gritty realism almost never work, but Zeitlin, who is making an auspicious feature directing debut, pulls it off with awesome results.

-- Lou Lumenick, New York Post

There's no trace of calculation, only artistic ambitions and hopes that have come to fruition in the year's finest film thus far.

-- Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a game-changer that gets you excited about movies again. Star Quvenzhané Wallis is a flat-out amazement.

-- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Zeitlin's adoring gaze on the Bathtubbers' chaotic-yet-joyous way of life smacks of anthropological voyeurism: Rousseau's "noble savage" nonsense all over again, but with crawdads and zydeco.

-- Dana Stevens, Slate

-- Compiled by Shane Minkin

Movie Review

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry and Lowell Landes

Grant Park

14A

92 minutes

Four stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2012 D6

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