After winning at Sundance and Cannes, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" seemed like a lock for the $10,000 Oxford American Best of the South prize, not officially the top prize at the Little Rock Film Festival — which "Beasts" won — but the only one with a cash prize. In the upset bid for the big-money OA prize: Martha Stephens' "Pilgrim Song," which Cheree Franco called "contemplative, graceful and sparse" in our preview of the festival. Stephens raised $8,440 via the crowd-funding site Indiegogo to fund the project, an amount that she told the Times represented about half of her budget. At that rate, she's more than halfway finished funding her next project thanks to the prize.
Stephens told the Times' Kim Lane that she made the movie — about a middle school teacher who decides to hike the Sheltowee Trace Trail after he's laid off — because she wanted to showcase the natural beauty of her home state of Kentucky.
"You see so many movies that look at Appalachia as a disgusting, drug-infested, impoverished place, and a lot of the stereotypes exist for a reason. We have all of that. But also, there are some nooks and crannies that are absolutely breathtaking. I wanted to make a movie about a guy hiking through that area."
The complete list of winners: Arkansas Times Audience Award: "Wolf"; World Shorts: "The God Phone"; Best Youth Film: "Colors in White"; Made in Arkansas Best Performance: Samuel Pettit in "Cain and Abel"; Made in Arkansas Best Director: Edmund Prince (Imraan Ismail) for "Shattered"; Charles B. Pierce Award for Best Arkansas Film: "Man in the Moon"; Golden Rock for Best Documentary: "High Tech, Low Life"; Golden Rock for Best Narrative Film: "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and Oxford American Prize for Best Southern Film: "Pilgrim's Song."
More on those and other favorites (read our complete coverage of the festival at arktimes.com/lrff2012):
The award-winning darling of both Sundance and Cannes, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," is a dense, ambitious epic, set in a swampy downtrodden utopia known as The Bathtub and starring 6-year-old Quvenzhane "Nazie" Wallis as Hushpuppy, a half-feral bayou child. She's confident, intuitive and absolutely convincing. The other standout is the art direction, which manages superb tasks on a budget of under $2 million (some of which is a grant from the Sundance Institute).
A stand-in for the Ninth Ward and other invisible, institutionally disenfranchised communities, The Bathtub is populated by crocodiles, overgrown fish, goats, chickens, mutts, drunks, a shaman and children. Everyone lives on his or her own terms. Freedom is what matters, tiny things are marvelous, and life is rowdy. But beyond The Bathtub there's global warming and rising sea levels, and as Hushpuppy repeatedly reminds us, the whole universe is connected.
A legendary storm comes. It kills the animals, and The Bathtub is underwater. Afterwards, those who didn't leave for life beyond the levee (where fish are trapped in plastic and babies are trapped in carriages) must live together in boats and a floating schoolhouse shack. They must learn to survive — especially Hushpuppy, because her mama ran off and her daddy is dying of some mysterious blood ailment.
Many films celebrate or portray life on the fringes, but this film pushes those fringes to mythical proportions. These people are utterly isolated, and yet, they are never alone. They have the whole universe. They have universes within the universe. They have their own gypsy-refuse Mardi Gras whenever they feel like it. They have occasional contact with other fringe-dwellers, in fantastic places such as floating saloons, where a goddess-cum-waitress, who might just be your long-lost mama, fries up the best alligator you ever tasted and then dances with you all night long. They have fireworks and arm-wrestling and, always, plenty of beer and moonshine. It's eerie and gorgeous. It's the squatters' New Orleans, the pirated, hobo underbelly of the tourist city. It's prehistoric art on cardboard caves and made-for-TV Viking lore. Like the best fairy tales, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is both familiar and disconcerting.
I liked it a lot. People in the theater were laughing out loud.