I'm not the sort of critic who gets all bent out of shape when summer rolls around and it's time to "suffer" through mass-market blockbuster fare - I try pretty hard to maintain my broader perspective of a guy who's just as excited for The Avengers as he is for the new Terrence Mallick movie. But I'll admit that even I get a little burned out when I head to the theaters and see only a succession of action movies and teen-targeted middlebrow comedies for options. Variety has its place, and when some bold studio opts to counter-program the warm months by releasing some of their higher-end niche/arthouse stock "early" (i.e. instead of saving them for unofficial late-fall "Oscar Qualifying Bloc") I consider it something worth celebrating - or, at least, seeking out.
With that in mind, submitted for your approval: A pair of decidedly outside-the-box movies currently in U.S. release that offer a definite change of pace from everything else.
Here's a movie that looks, feels and sounds so profoundly different from the vast, vast majority of films you're ever likely to see that you occasionally want to pinch yourself to make sure what you're watching actually is a movie. An affectionate yet un-romanticized story of a rural culture whose poverty is so profound it's practically alien? Where elements of magic-realism exist without overwhelming the movie? That has very specific, unmistakable points to make about major topical/political events and does so without being preachy or heavy-handed? Told from the perspective of a pre-teen African American girl who's as far removed from the typical precocious/smart-alecky Hollywood child star as humanly possible? Where did thiscome from?
Louisiana, as it turns out.
Adapted from a play called Juicy & Delicious, Beasts is set in a fictionalized fantasy version of the lower bayou called The Bathtub where a self-sustaining community of poverty-stricken (to the point of looking post-apocalyptic) people live a vibrant and happy but hand-to-mouth existence. They're separated from the mainland by a huge levee that created The Bathtub and affords its residents their isolated privacy, but also places them in peril of being utterly wiped out should the water ever rise too high.
As you may have intuited, that's exactly what happens - a Hurricane Katrina-level superstorm slams the area, leaving the Bathtub's survivors to fend for themselves while simultaneously avoiding extraction by federal rescuers, whom they view as a kind of invading alien force. Meanwhile, it's ominously implied that some vague, world-unbalancing negative force (read: Climate Change) responsible for the storm has unleashed a horde of massive prehistoric monsters (no, really) from the melting Arctic ice and said monsters are now lumbering inexorably toward The Bathtub.
The monsters (referred to as "Aurochs" but more closely resembling Godzilla-sized horned pigs) may or may not be symbolic imaginings conjured by our main character, Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old girl of The Bathtub living with her father, Wink. Wink appears to be an alcoholic - or at the very least irresponsible and infrequently abusive - and is dying of an unidentified (to Hushpuppy and thusly to us) disease, but he's committed to making sure that Hushpuppy grows up into a self-sufficient survivor. When disaster strikes he assumes leadership of the survivors, ultimately inspiring her to do the same.
Between Brave and The Hunger Games, this has been a big summer for tough-as-nails young female heroes, but Hushpuppy is easily the toughest. At six years old she's already living in her own house, raising animals and bounding through The Bathtub as though she's had a hundred years to learn the terrain and fear nothing. She has no bow or arrows, but you get the sense that in a few short years she'll be hard enough to knock Katniss Everdeen out cold without breaking a sweat.
The actress who plays Hushpuppy, Quvenzhané Wallis, had no prior acting experience (neither did Dwight Henry, who was a local Louisiana baker when he was cast as Wink) and she dominates the screen with a presence most professionals would kill for. I got a chance to meet her when the cast/crew of the film did a meet-and-greet in Boston, and I can attest that she indeed seems to be a being of pure energy. Both she (and the film) will be ending up on a lot of "Year's Best" lists, and if this is playing near you it's absolutely worth seeking out.