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updated: 7/5/2012 6:19 AM

'Beasts' an impressive work of imagination that plays like a documentary

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  • Wink (Dwight Henry) and his young daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) eke out a meager existence in post-Katrina Louisiana in Benh Zeitlin's first feature "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

      Wink (Dwight Henry) and his young daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) eke out a meager existence in post-Katrina Louisiana in Benh Zeitlin's first feature "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

  • Wink (Dwight Henry) and his young daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) eke out a meager existence in post-Katrina Louisiana in Benh Zeitlin's impressive first feature "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

      Wink (Dwight Henry) and his young daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) eke out a meager existence in post-Katrina Louisiana in Benh Zeitlin's impressive first feature "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

 
 

Reel Life mini-review: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'
Benh Zeitlin's imaginative feature debut "Beasts of the Southern Wild" creates an entire world out of muck, water, storms, danger and fantasy, yet it packs the gritty realism of a hard documentary narrated by a 6-year-old girl who views her damaged existence with patient wisdom beyond her years.

You've probably never heard of Lousianna actress Quvenzhane Wallis, but at the year's end when awards are handed out, don't be surprised if her name pops up a lot, because her natural, easy intensity and quiet command of the screen mark her as a true cinematic prize.

Wallis, only five when she auditioned for this movie, plays Hushpuppy, a denizen of the Bathtub, a desolate chunk of swampland off the coast of southern Louisiana.

She lives with her drunkard father Wink (Dwight Henry, a local bakery and deli operator who had to be persuaded to take this role). Wink is a broken man since his wife left, or as Hushpuppy explains, "swam away."

After Katrina savaged the state, levees separated the Bathtub from the mainland, and Hushpuppy fears the whole area has been written off by everyone, even the few who still remain in their dilapidated homes.

Wink and Hushpuppy live hardscrabble lives among debris and broken dreams, even broken lives. Wink is no great father figure. He hits his daughter when she does something that displeases him.

Hushpuppy accidentally burns down what little home they have, forcing them to find a new place. In one scene, Wink takes Hushpuppy with him to a house of ill repute.

So, nobody in the Bathtub lives a sheltered existence. Katrina destroyed all that.

Even so, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" remains an intimate father/daughter story bubbling with inexplicable optimism and affection for its flawed and struggling characters.

Granted, this relationship story tends to ramble, but "Beasts" -- based on Lucy Alibar's play "Juicy and Delicious" -- conjures up some metaphorical tension in the form of "aurochs," prehistoric animals equipped with pointed tusks.

When global warming melts their icy glacier cages, the beasts take off, and they stampede, presumably, to the Bathtub and to little Hushpuppy, but for what purpose?

Zeitlin, who previously directed a 2008 short on Katrina titled "Glory at Sea," utilizes handsomely framed shots captured on hand-held cameras that not only give "Beasts" a documentary feel, but symbolize the instability of Hushpuppy's world.

When you're small like Hushpuppy, she advises "You've got to fix what you can," and leave the rest to somebody else. She's one of the most amazing movie characters of recent memory, alongside the tough and vengeful Lisbeth Salander in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago and the Evanston Century 18. It will expand to the River East in Chicago and the Renaissance Place in Highland Park July 13. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations. ★ ★ ★ ★

Flash pants?
Daily Herald reporter Jake Griffith reports to me that during a weekend showing of Channing Tatum's new male stripper drama "Magic Mike," at least half a dozen women shot flash photos of the screen when the star doffed his duds and gave them a gander at his backside.

What's wrong with these women? Don't they know not to use flashes? (Flashes not only ruin the film images -- they can be spotted by undercover movie marshals out to enforce anti-piracy laws. Just so you know.)

"Magic Mike" earned $39 million on its opening weekend, second only to "Ted" with $54 million.

Bruce the shark, again
Join me for an opportunity to see Steven Spielberg's classic shark tale "Jaws" on the silver screen at 8 p.m. next Friday, July 13, at Muvico Theater, 9701 Bryn Mawr Ave., Rosemont. I'll introduce the show, talk about its historical importance and answer questions about the epic adventure that pits three men against the world's largest shark off the coast of the lovely Amity Island.

The movie has been digitally remastered and will be shown in 4-K projection with 7.1 surround sound.

Muvico's special events coordinator Mike Kerz said the refurbished "Jaws" prompted Spielberg to say that his movie didn't look as good in 1975 as it does now.

"Jaws" will also be shown at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on July 14, and at 4 p.m. July 15. "Jaws" will be the first in a series of restored classic motion pictures at the Muvico, each introduced by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

"Taxi Driver," an Alfred Hitchcock series and a Universal Pictures' monster movie series are on the schedule. Go to muvico.com.

'Headhunters'
The After Hours Film Society presents Jo Nesbo's "Headhunters," 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. General admission costs $9. A professional headhunter (Aksel Hennie) attempts to steal a valuable painting from a former mercenary. Things don't go well. Go to afterhoursfilmsociety.com.

• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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