Beasts of the Southern Wild

I’ve been thinking a lot about films, since I just returned from Austin and South by Southwest. I found this review I wrote for the Arkansas Times about Beasts of the Southern Wild after it screened at the Little Rock Film Festival last spring. Thought I would post it here.

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The award-winning darling of both Sundance and Cannes, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is a dense, ambitious epic, set in a swampy downtrodden utopia known as The Bathtub and starring 6-year-old Quvenzhane “Nazie” Wallis as Hushpuppy, a half-feral bayou child. She’s confident, intuitive and absolutely convincing. The other standout is the art direction, which manages superb tasks on a budget of under $2 million (some of which is a grant from the Sundance Institute).

A stand-in for the Ninth Ward and other invisible, institutionally disenfranchised communities, The Bathtub is populated by crocodiles, overgrown fish, goats, chickens, mutts, drunks, a shaman and children. Everyone lives on his or her own terms. Freedom is what matters, tiny things are marvelous, and life is rowdy. But beyond The Bathtub there’s global warming and rising sea levels, and as Hushpuppy repeatedly reminds us, the whole universe is connected.

A legendary storm comes. It kills the animals, and The Bathtub is underwater. Afterwards, those who didn’t leave for life beyond the levee (where fish are trapped in plastic and babies are trapped in carriages) must live together in boats and a floating schoolhouse shack. They must learn to survive — especially Hushpuppy, because her mama ran off and her daddy is dying of some mysterious blood ailment.

Many films celebrate or portray life on the fringes, but this film pushes those fringes to mythical proportions. These people are utterly isolated, and yet, they are never alone. They have the whole universe. They have universes within the universe. They have their own gypsy-refuse Mardi Gras whenever they feel like it. They have occasional contact with other fringe-dwellers, in fantastic places such as floating saloons, where a goddess-cum-waitress, who might just be your long-lost mama, fries up the best alligator you ever tasted and then dances with you all night long. They have fireworks and arm-wrestling and, always, plenty of beer and moonshine. It’s eerie and gorgeous. It’s the squatters’ New Orleans, the pirated, hobo underbelly of the tourist city. It’s prehistoric art on cardboard caves and made-for-TV Viking lore. Like the best fairy tales, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is both familiar and disconcerting.

The film takes effort to absorb. Its strength is in impressions, but these impressions are layered, and the scenes are laden with archetype and narrative. Combined with the emotional score, it all becomes a poetic wash, catapulting your psyche in a hundred unbidden directions at once and dredging up “everything that made me,” to quote Hushpuppy. This is what I most appreciated about the film, but it’s also what I found problematic. At times, it all seemed self-conscious. Sometimes you’re more aware of the artiness, craft and ambition than you are engaged by the characters and their lives.

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Leonard Cooper, Teen Jeopardy Champ

Leonard Cooper works his high school quiz bowl team

Leonard Cooper works his high school quiz bowl team

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This story was originally published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on March 5, 2013.

Media-dubbed “Jeopardy folk hero” a.k.a. “American treasure” seeks singer for the Leonard Cooper Sunshine Band. Or for Leonard Cooper and the eStem Street Band. Or for Leonard Cooper Drippin’ in Swag. Or maybe for Leonard and his Olive Long-sleeves. The group’s name is thus undecided, but to qualify, you must be available for all high school holiday concerts and talent shows, and you must be proficient at “Jingle Bells,” “Carry on My Wayward Son” and “Sweet Child of Mine.” Particularly “Carry on My Wayward” son, because, according to Leonard Cooper himself, “the thing that’s so weird about doing that song with no singer, a third of it’s just singing with no instruments.” In Thus Undecided, Cooper, 17, plays a black Les Paul borrowed from his guidance counselor, despite the fact that a $75,000 check (minus taxes) is en route from Jeopardy!. He hasn’t gotten around to buying his own guitar, nor has he gotten around to taking the driving test, even though he plans to buy a reliable used car, as well.

Grant Depoyster, 17, plays bass, and Troy Daniell, 18, anchors the whole affair on a seven-piece drum kit (behind a transparent sound-screen, since they practice in a cramped strip of computer lab, which is mostly long tables and computers, although there’s an inexplicable piano in the back). Depoyster wears a busy caftan and a red do-rag with attached polyester dreads. Daniell wears a red tartan plaid skirt. Cooper wears a blue seniors 2013 t-shirt and a five-year-unchecked afro. But despite their mad style, they can’t get the timing of “Hotel California.” Cooper’s good with the druggy, melodic intro, but when the other guys kick in, the tempo doesn’t really pick up. Depoyster makes a speed-it-up motion with his hand, and Cooper messes with some dials to max the distortion. A third of the way through the song, they stop abruptly.

“I know you can’t take me seriously when I’m wearing a dress, but we really need a singer,” Daniell says.

“A singer would help,” Cooper agrees. Because, if anything, Cooper is agreeable. Or at least, he’s agreeable about things that matter. Hanging up his jacket doesn’t really matter. Nor does his grandfather’s opinion of his hairstyle. Nor does his homework, when he already has an ‘A,’ and he already knows the material. Nor does taking a stab at the final answer on teen Jeopardy!, when he’s ahead by $22,600, one opponent can’t catch up, and he’s pretty sure the other guy, a freshman who hasn’t taken U.S. History, is clueless. Continue reading