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Beasts of the Southern Wild – Art 5/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 5/5
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 5/5

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From humid memories of redneckerie in the dirtier part of Florida to the President of the United States recommending her film to Oprah Winfrey, Lucy Alibar’s incredibly optimistic screenplay of baroque poverty is nothing if not unique, and a little bit wonderful. Beasts of the Southern Wild stars Quvenzhané Wallis as a daydreaming kiddo attempting to orient her overactive imagination with her father’s homespun junkyard tales and their bayou world cut off from normal existence. Living in “the Bathtub”, an island beyond the levies in a setting with stinging Hurricane Katrina symbolism, Hushpuppy and her father Wink inhabit a world caught between gleeful fantasy and painful reality.

Written with childhood friend and director Benh Zeitlin, and based on her one-act play Juicy and Delicious which was inspired by her experiences with her father, Alibar, who was working three service jobs at the time, had to beg for funds in order to fly to Cannes to see her film win the Caméra d’Or for best debut. The project began when Sundance picked up her story for further development, and now, this blonde writer from Florida who was not too long ago a case study in lifting yourself up by the bootstraps as a broke as shit waitress in Brooklyn is in hot demand. She’s the bee’s knees, if you will.

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Another unconventional childhood depicted in film this year was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on Stephen Chbosky’s novel of the same name. Perks is about a tepid and solitary freshman, played by Logan Lerman, seeking ways to pierce the social cliques at school while harboring the weight of some dark incidents in his past. Chbosky was tapped by the team behind Juno, Mr. Mudd Productions (including John Malkovich) to adapt his own screenplay and even make his directorial debut, after lending his screenwriting to other productions, such as the film version of Rent. The story is somewhat personal for Chbosky, who built it around his acquaintances and experiences in a high school near Pittsburgh, PA.

I haven’t got much sympathy for coming-of-age tales, or romans à clef about one’s childhood. They all look alike because artists whose imagination extends as far as their soccer trophies and their wild and crazy times are exactly the overabundant type to think their egotistical fixation on themselves is of the least interest to anybody else. They’re the writerly equivalent of brain-dead beauties stepping off the bus in Los Angeles, ready for stardom to be thrust upon them. Soon, the only thing being thrust upon them is buckets of Ron Jeremy’s semen. Reminiscences about one’s youth are at once the technically easiest and statistically worst type of schlock because the people to conceive them are at the inopportune age of being yet to realize the folly of their creativity.

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These two films cut against that stereotype by de-personalizing by dramatic degrees, draining the ego, pleasingly so, completely so, but of course in different ways. In Beasts, Alibar creates a dizzying array of fantasies to reproduce the feeling of early childhood. The setting is so foreign to us, and yet rationalized in an idiosyncratic southern poverty where white and black folk have lost any consciousness of difference, and elaborate their understanding of the world in spontaneous poetic explanations. This other-worldly vision is generated from a similar niche in American culture that we get represented in more gloss and horror melodrama with True Blood: a New South that’s also still the Dirty South; a culture whose contradictions and cognitive dissonances fire out things more interesting than what happens in your common Pennsylvania suburb.

Or so I would have liked to think. Perks also addresses a side of childhood our popular consciousness isn’t happy to explore very often outside of after school specials (which one character is exasperated to find his life resembles). Chbosky’s narrative is designed in such a way that he doesn’t introduce its linchpin until the epilogue, when the film’s mercurial pacing begins to make more sense as we discover that the lead character has been suffering from a type of post-traumatic stress or depression induced by disquieting events. Uniting form and content in one stroke, we understand why this otherwise normal story of self-discovery suddenly takes a spill into the abyss at the very end. It competently explains the prior morose overtones in a plot that is anything but, and jumps in mood when every cinema studies textbook tells you to stand still.

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The acting in both films was simply excellent, especially considering that both featured (sometimes very) young actors, Beasts’ two leads being utter neophytes to the medium. Dwight Henry, playing the father in Beasts, ran a restaurant across the street from the production company when they were in the casting process. The two sources of momentum in Perks are the lead, Logan Lerman, who contains a storm bristling in his eyes throughout most of the story, until it erupts with fists; and Ezra Miller in support as the soulful gay class comedian, quite the departure from his hammy psychopath in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. The supports in both are mostly all great, but I’m wholly unimpressed with the Harry Potter girl. Why this fella has a crush on such a lame navel-gazing mousy doll is anybody’s guess, but that’s one of cupid’s charms, innit?

As with any debut efforts, we have to wonder whether these accomplishments were a mere once-off, but only doubly so.  These tales have the fetid odor of the all-too personal. Once you tell your childhood story, you either croak like Wordsworth after penning his Prelude, or you wind up wrapping your Maserati around a tree in San Bernardino. You’ve simply run out of interesting things to say, because you focused on yourself, and there’s only one you. While these two films escape the cliched trappings of the vanity inherent in the genre, they’re still very much subject to its physics. I hope against hope that their follow-up efforts can take off with as much vim, but we’ll just have to hurry up and wait.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2125435/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/beasts_of_the_southern_wild/
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1659337/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_perks_of_being_a_wallflower/