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“Swamped”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

I’VE GOT BOB DYLAN on the brain this week, what with the release of his 35th studio album, “Tempest,” and upcoming visit to the Mile High City.  The dark prophet, now 71 years old, has been singing of rising sea-levels for some time now.  His 13-minute narration of the Titanic’s sinking (“Tempest”) is just an extension of 1964’s “The Times Are A’Changin’” – “Admit that the waters around you have grown” – and more recently, this forecast: “High water risin’/The shacks are slidin’ down/Folks lose their possessions/Folks are leaving town.”  Dylan peers into the future and sees only diaspora and disaster.

That last lyric of his comes from “High Water,” released on September 11, 2001, and it was eerily appropriate that on the eleventh anniversary of 9-11, I caught Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a sensation at both Sundance and Cannes and deservedly so.  This savage beauty of a film has all the bluesy magic of the late Dylan and shares his sense that humanity, on the brink of being swamped, should go on singin’ and dancin’.  Set in the Gulf of Mexico, “Beasts” is something of an eco-fable; the ragtag residents of a territory known as the Bathtub are bracing themselves for another disastrous storm.  Separated by a levee, they live close to the earth, so close, in fact, that they’re a bit beastly themselves: cinematographer Ben Richardson’s camera plunges us into the vats of writhing crawfish, chicken carcasses, and alligators stuffed with explosives.  “Beasts” is an exercise in magic realism that gets down in the muck and mire.  “Every animal is made of meat,” one of the Bathtub’s residents teaches the children, “It’s the buffet of the universe.”

At the eye of the storm is a motherless six-year-old named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who occupies a filthy shack beside her father Wink (Dwight Henry).  Before she burns it down, her shack is decorated with sports jerseys and jawbones; she keeps a football helmet in the freezer, which she dons when lighting her stove with a blowtorch.  She has a preternatural connection with the animal world around her.  Putting her ear to the heart of a chickadee, she tells us “Sometimes they be talkin’ in codes.”  The little actress beat out 4,000 other girls to win the role and the fourth-grader will likely become the youngest actor ever nominated for an Academy Award.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a survivalist tale: Wink is dying of drink and disease and Hushpuppy must soldier on in the face of poverty and climate change.  She is the embodiment of the human will, but in yellow underpants and rubber boots.  Her father calls her “little man” and the two square off with a brutal sort of love for each other.  Is Hushpuppy the real beast of Zeitlin’s film, which he based on Lucy Alibar’s stage play, “Juicy and Delicious”?  Or is it the herd of prehistoric boars she imagines roaming the bayou and shaking the very earth beneath her feet?   Equally beastly are the governmental workers who try to quarantine the Bathtub residents though they can’t, or won’t, be contained.  At a climactic moment, when Hushpuppy stands fearlessly before these beasts of her imagination, I was brought suddenly to tears.  The film’s raw emotionality is earned; its earthiness induces nausea.  I laughed, cried, and for 90 minutes, wanted to throw up; what more could you want from a film?

“Beasts” wants us to see the abjection of American life up-close and you’ll need an iron gut to stomach Zeitlin’s stroke of genius.  As Dylan once warned, “You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone.”

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