Sundance hit Beasts Of The Southern Wild (The Times’ Manohla Dargis called it “among the best films to play there in two decades”) has finally – and fittingly – emerged from the anticipatory vapor of the festival circuit and earlier this week landed in limited release, giving clamoring cinephiles the chance to see a movie that, based on what they had been told, essentially could not be bad. The exultant reviews, coupled with a visually engaging if somewhat slight trailer, built hype for this film up to a fever pitch, perhaps not in breadth but in assuredness of quality. Unfortunately, while Beasts Of The Southern Wild goes to great lengths to avoid being a bad movie, it eschews the most desirable route: being a good one.
The film, much like the poorly realized beasts of the title, is a trifle in profundity’s clothing: an almost astoundingly disengaged experience that doesn’t have much to say nor very good ideas for how to go about it. Half baked and damningly overconfident, Beasts will leave you wanting. First time writer-director Benh Zeitlin, a 29 year old New Yorker who relocated to New Orleans for the film, isn’t untalented, nor is his film horrible. But one of the best of the year, let alone 20 years? Dargis must have been high. Beasts is the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl living in a commendably realized fairytale-like island in Southern Louisiana entitled The Bathtub. A borderline magical place that clearly has roots in the post-Katrina drowned wards of the big easy.
Homes, whether they be corrugated lean-to’s, raised trailers, appropriated vehicles or simply a clearing in the woods, are decidedly ramshackle, each filled with a seemingly endless deluge of stuff, boxes full of dirty knick-knacks, clothes, bottles, crustaceans and more and more. After an extended opening that feels more like a commercial than a film (it appears Zeitlin enjoyed Cary Fukanaga’s turn at the helm of Levi’s advertisements as much as the rest of us), we arrive at the “meat” of Beasts, which really amounts to a series of episodic vignettes centered around a storm that never earns or explicates its purpose in the tale.
Zeitlin owes Quvenzhané Wallis, the 6 year old local found for the lead role, at least 75% of whatever paycheck he gets for his next movie, because without her he would have been, well, fucked. Really the only performance bright spot in a spread of non-actors, the beautiful and almost androgynous Wallis pulls off one of those child performances that conveys intelligence and poise without unbelievable precociousness, no matter how much Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar try to sabotage her with unfortunate narration that trips the tongue and flags the eyelids. Wallis is best – captivating, powerful, believable, all those other good things – when she’s silent, traipsing around the ramshackle world of The Bathtub, playing with the animals that seem to outnumber the people, or screaming a siren shriek after snapping a crab in twain.
I feel bad criticizing the other non-actors – second lead Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s father Wink, was discovered working at a bakery that the crew was eating breakfast at – but they’re passable at best, and illusion breaking at worst. Henry in particular spends most of the movie yelling, though perhaps that stems from his own frustration with the inconsistent character he was given by the writers. While he starts the film as an absentee, a unhinged drunkard who screams at and hits his tiny daughter, about halfway through the filmmakers decide this is actually a story about a caring father being unfairly taken away from his child, and alter his character for no reason to reflect that. Indeed much of Beasts Of The Southern Wild either crumbles or grates under any scrutiny, and not in an interesting or “mysterious” way.
For instance, we’re supposed to believe that the residents of The Bathtub would sacrifice everything, maybe even their lives, to stay in their home after a vicious storm hits leaving it flooded. Except Zeitlin never gives us enough reason to believe their devotion – other than the fact that “they just do” – instead treating us to numerous scenes of them actively berating and destroying their environs. Hushpuppy burns down her house, Wink fires his gun to the sky in a retaliatory gesture to nature, and everyone takes pleasure in simply wrecking as much as they can. It’s not a lifestyle that at all reads as sustainable, or like this community has actually been existing before we got there. Similarly, we’re meant to believe in their strong sense of community and basic decent humanity, but none of their relationships run deep, and their fears of the outside world (read: our world, basically) are never properly explained.
Numerous plot threads peter out or are revealed to be inconsequential (including a supposedly climactic showdown with the beasts) and the film lack the narrative thrust to allow you to get swept up in the magical visuals. Additionally, while the film blatantly co-opts imagery and piggybacks on preexisting audience relationships with Hurricane Katrina, it frustratingly goes out of its way to avoid taking a stance, any stance, on the subject itself. Call it a case of heightened expectations maybe, but for me Beasts Of The Southern Wild simply isn’t a great movie.- Whole Milk