There's a whole lot of poverty, dirt, and truly questionable parenting up on that screen, but 2012 festival darling "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is hardly one of those gritty, neo-realist downers. Instead, it's a modern fable and an environmental parable, a wondrous, evocative piece of folk art with flaws at once glaring yet easily ignored. It takes the elements that typically act as crutches for a narrative — voiceovers, precocious children, contrived quirkiness — and somehow turns them into strengths. And as someone who's been awfully numbed by both the multiplex and arthouse offerings this year, I've longed for a reason why I — we — continue to pony up, week after week, for what feels like the same halfhearted stuff from the same overpaid people. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is that joyful reminder.
Six years old at the time of filming (and probably, hopefully, on track for a history-making Oscar nomination), the astonishing Quvenzhané Wallis provides thoughtful narration and appears in nearly every scene as Hushpuppy, a motherless child who lives with her alcoholic daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a low-lying bayou known as The Bathtub. Wink's love is the tough kind; he's preparing his daughter, whom he calls both "Man" and "Boss Lady," for a hardscrabble existence through a blend of mandatory self-sufficiency (they have separate shacks), fearlessness, and drunken neglect. After an unmistakably Katrina-esque event drowns The Bathtub, Hushpuppy, her increasingly ailing father, and a gaggle of their similarly displaced neighbors struggle for survival. Meanwhile, the polar ice caps have melted enough to dislodge a pack of previously extinct aurochs, giant, carnivorous hogs now lumbering across the landscape.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is director Benh Zeitlin's feature debut; he co-wrote the script with Lucy Alibar (it's based on her semi-autobiographical play about her relationship with her own father) and encouraged input from his cast of nonprofessionals. Dwight Henry, for instance, owns a New Orleans bakery; he delivers a heartbreaking performance as a troubled father doing the best he can. But Henry plays second fiddle to Wallis, who combines the ferocity (and mane) of a tiny lion with wide-eyed fascination and preternatural wisdom. The camera loves her (and everything else, thanks to gifted cinematographer Ben Richardson), and it's a credit to Wallis and her writers that her narration actually sounds like the inner life of a child.
There is, ultimately, a gorgeous, soul-swelling scene in which Hushpuppy and the aurochs cross paths. But Hushpuppy's more pressing concern is finding her long-lost mom, which she may or may not accomplish at a floating brothel in another exquisite interlude where grubby little girls and bosomy whores all get the warmth they need. Now, some will have problems with "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; certain characters are mysteriously underwritten, and anyone intent on finding bleeding-heart condescension will likely do so. Happily, this film brings to mind such things as the way Terrence Malick showcases nature (and employs voiceover as philosophical musing) as well as the way L. Frank Baum writes a road trip. So if you can get lost in Hushpuppy's world, you should; cinematically speaking, there's nothing quite like it.
Maybe you've seen the five black sculptures of birds on the grounds of the George Eastman House. On display through September 30, they represent a handful of species that were, by and large, hunted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibition's accompanying documentary, also titled "The Lost Bird Project," screens on Saturday followed by a panel discussion featuring the filmmakers, and on Sunday followed by a walking tour of the pieces. Directed by Deborah Dickson, the absorbing but bittersweet film depicts an elegiac labor of love, as sculptor Todd McGrain and his brother-in-law, Andy Stern, trek throughout the Eastern Seaboard to secure homes for McGrain's tributes to the lost species.
Passion and purpose meet red tape and bureaucracy during their quest, which takes McGrain and Stern as far north as Newfoundland in search of an appropriate spot for the sculpture of the Great Auk, and as far south as Florida to honor the Carolina Parakeet in the place it was last seen. We learn the history of the individual breeds and meet their closest living relatives, which helps to allow us a hazy glimpse at the lost birds. And while these particular fowl obviously won't be coming back, the remaining strains are all counting on us not to screw it up again.