For movie watchers, few things can be more frustrating than films that begin with a sequence of immense promise, only to show over the remainder that the emperor truly wears no clothes. Two new examples come from the horror realm.
Until now, Ethan Hawke was having a wonderful year. Before Midnight, the third leg of his trilogy with director Richard Linklater and actress Julie Delpy, brought waves of critical acclaim and talk of another Oscar nomination for their collaborative screenplay, while The Purge turned a meager investment into a highly profitable box-office take.
Neither a chain of spice stores nor a Food Network program, The Seasoning House is a bleak-as-nuclear-winter thriller set during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. A deaf girl named Angel (Brit teen Rosie Day) is taken from her home by soldiers who shoot her mother dead.
Paul Schrader’s The Canyons opens and closes with a montage of abandoned movie theaters. For this film in particular, that choice strikes one as symbolic in several ways: not only as a comment on the state of the industry, but on the state of The Canyons itself. You’re unlikely to find many 2013 films this empty.
What's a director of classic musicals doing in science fiction? Making Saturn 3, one of the worst of the genre Hollywood made in the immediate post-Star Wars / Alien era. Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) takes to it about as well as you'd expect; he's in over his head.
Just as did director Guillermo del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth, first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin requires a suspension of disbelief to become part of a world seen and understood through a young girl’s eyes.
Just as the creative force of Ofelia’s imagination in that 2006 film fought back against Franco’s fascism, this one, embodied in 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), stands up to the racism and sacrifice of the poor for the sake of those with higher tax bases and voter identification cards.
The basic story is simple. Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub, an area outside New Orleans that city officials allow to flood to save higher-income areas. They reside among a group of off-the-gridders who live a hardscrabble life rooted in tradition, cigarettes and alcohol. Feasts in the form of crawfish parties and famine in the eating of pet food and canned gravy both get screen time. Children are loved; children are put in harm’s way.
The higher-level story is more complex. As the unnamed, Katrina-like hurricane of the film approaches, fierce prehistoric creatures called aurochs escape from the melting polar ice caps and begin slouching toward the Bathtub.
What amazes is watching Zeitlin pull off the trick of keeping Beasts’ realism simultaneously magical and gritty. Fierce hooves thud and fearsome thunder cracks as a young boy runs through the camp ringing a handbell and warning, “The storm’s coming!” He’s the Bathtub’s Paul Revere.
In the moving story of a daughter and her father, Zeitlin weaves together infuriating themes of ecological disaster and social discrimination that ring as true as the bell.
Revolution may be at hand, indeed. Scheduled to open Friday, the film is not perfect: too obvious at times and too mystical at others. While its magic may be rough, however, it is still magic. Wallis is a wonder — no other word will do — as Hushpuppy. She may well become the youngest ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Her voice over narration goes far beyond what the standard issue 6-year-old might plausibly say, but Wallis makes every word believable, and she is almost always center-screen.
Hushpuppy knows she is “a little piece of a big, big universe,” but one of her most poignant lines makes clear that, still, attention must be paid: “In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re going to know once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”
She’s poor and small, but that shouldn’t render her existence meaningless. That’s not too much to ask for anyone.