Under the Radar


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.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

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.

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Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom might just be the most Wes Anderson-y movie Wes Anderson has made yet, with the possible exception of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which allowed him to render the cast in the same meticulously-handmade fashion he lavishes on everything else. In any case, it’s a great film.

I’ve described Anderson in the past as being Tim Burton with twice the talent but only half the psychological scarring, and I stand by that. He’s a filmmaker with a very singular, intensely personal creative voice that can easily be mistaken for self-repetition when seen only from the surface. He likes long takes, meticulously-composed “diorama” shot composition, warm autumnal color tones, handmade/heirloom-esque objects and the gently cheesy artifice of late 60s/early 70s middle class pop-iconography. All of these Wes Anderson tropes and more are on full display here, but it’s one new element that takes it to the next level: The main characters are children.

Once you see it, it’s kind of amazing that Anderson hasn’t made what is very nearly a smarter-than-average slightly-darker version of a kid’s story before now. Everything about his aesthetic obsessions, from the dollhouse world unreality to his affection for awkward misfit heroes would seem to make younger leads a natural conclusion. In this case, the setup is a story of first love between two twelve-year-olds on a rural New England island in 1965. The boy, Sam, is an orphaned, emotionally withdrawn “Khaki Scout” (read: Boy Scout). The girl, Suzy, is a too-smart-for-her-own-good bookworm prone to violent outbursts.

Having been secret pen-pals for a year after a chance meeting, Sam and Suzy decide (rather matter-of-factly) that they are in love and opt to run away together – her from her parents (Bill Murray and Francis McDormand) he from his Scout Troop. Problematically, they’ve elected to do so just as a major hurricane (hey, look! A recurring theme!) is about to slam the island.

Soon enough, the local Sherriff (Bruce Willis) and Sam’s earnest Scoutmaster (Edward Norton) have joined the haphazard attempt to find them, which also includes the other members of Sam’s Troop – which isn’t good news, as Sam isn’t particularly popular. Meanwhile, the experience gives the adults cause to air out their own issues and to reconsider their approach to Sam when they meet the alarmingly sinister Social Services matron (Tilda Swinton) who’s been dispatched to collect him.

Being 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy’s “plan” is adorably ill-formed. They’re basically just sneaking around and camping, Sam aiming to impress with his Scout “survival” skills and Suzy (who occasionally seems like the missing link between Lisa Simpson and Daria Morgandorfer) looking to share her “sophisticated” understanding of Young Adult sci fi/fantasy novels and French pop music. It all sounds very self-consciously quirky – and make no mistake, it is – but in between all the attention Anderson lavishes on the details of what children think of as very important things is a heartbreakingly real depiction of what it feels like to meet someone who seems to understand you, even when you don’t fully understand yourself.

Anderson has been criticized (not without merit) for letting his fondness for quirk and artificiality render his films emotionally distant, and while Kingdom is as comfortably unreal as ever (The Boy Scouts, with their kid-sized wilderness gear and grown men enforcing a regimented version of boyhood, is an incredibly natural subject for him) the sincerity of the young leads makes it as close as he’s ever come to raw, exposed-nerve humanity – there probably won’t be a more affecting “grownup” romance onscreen this year.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.