Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is the kind of independent feature that critics love to love. On paper, it’s a subjective work from a first-time filmmaker, made with a visual flair and distance from the Hollywood machine that heralds the arrival of a fresh cinematic voice. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Golden Camera at Cannes, the film clearly has its share of supporters. After sitting through the longest 93 minutes in recent memory, however, I wonder if the mess I saw was the same work that so many have hailed as a masterpiece.
Set in a fringe neighborhood in sub-levee New Orleans known as The Bathtub, Beasts of the Southern Wild follows six-year-old Hushpuppy’s (Quvenzhané Wallis) atypical life with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Off the grid and proud of it, poverty would be an improvement for The Bathtub’s inhabitants, who nonetheless have no intention of leaving their filthy existence.
Zeitlin introduces The Bathtub and its unified residents through a spirited opening montage of street parades, firework celebrations, and copious drinking. The place is a dump, plain and simple, and its production design is the film’s one great consistent achievement. Filmed in a shaky, handheld manner, the authentic environment is littered with shacks and trailers in various forms of disrepair, with ratty animals running around and garbage everywhere. Among the rubble is the occasional beacon of ingenuity, most notably Wink’s boat, consisting of little more than a pick-up truck bed and a motor. While the people of The Bathtub appear just as grungy and hodgepodge as their surroundings, such hopeful elements suggest a vitality that runs contradictory to the dire environment.
The problem lies, however, in Zeitlin’s infatuation with his setting. While the detail of Beasts of the Southern Wild is certainly impressive, repetitious shots of dirty, disheveled characters standing in a matching milieu and spouting gobbledegook dialogue should not be confused for narrative. Accompanied by Hushpuppy’s ridiculous voice-over narration that recalls Sissy Spacek’s naive storybook lines from Badlands, the film operates under the assumption that squalor and an automatic sympathy for what equates to child abuse is cinematically sufficient.
It’s not. Lost in its own world, Beasts of the Southern Wild offers no sympathetic characters and nothing to latch on to. As for plot, that’s suspect, too. The gist is that Wink is sick and his impending death throws Hushpuppy’s world into disarray. Though sub-ghetto fabulous, that existence is fairly straightforward until she has an imaginary conversation with her departed Mother. From there, the extent to which her fantasy world intervenes is debatable, especially when the bulk of events that occur are firmly rooted in reality.
On some level, she interprets Wink’s illness and the torrential rains that ravage The Bathtub as her own doing. Pending threats of melting ice caps and giant prehistoric boar-like creatures called aurochs, both learned from a school lesson, further suggest a lucid dreamlike input to her personal apocalypse. The film’s refusal to commit to these fantastic elements, however, lends its events a surprisingly ordinary feel, and when the mystical does step forward, it feels out of place.
Fortunately, the pedestrian feel isn’t entirely without merit. In the storm’s aftermath, the genuine unity and community passion that arose post-Katrina resonates throughout The Bathtub’s survivors. Banding together and swearing a return to the way things were, their resilience is commendable. These scenes strongly capture the emotions that the Fall 2005 media saturation only grazed, and both their raw power and sustained action suggest a glimmer of directorial purpose.
The feeling is short-lived, though, as the film quickly devolves into nothingness. Zeitlin’s overemphasis on place over story grows increasingly tedious and leaves his inexperienced cast to aimlessly wander the wasteland. Much praise has been heaped on Wallis’ performance, but how much acting is a six-year-old truly capable of? She reads her lines, hits her marks, does a lot (no, really…a lot) of staring, and screams a few times. It’s not exactly Marlon Brando. Likewise, Henry’s Wink is borderline embarrassing and none of the secondary delta folk are given enough material to rise above impoverished caricatures.
Directionless beyond belief, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in futility disguised as indie inventiveness. Zeitland deserves credit for stylistically committing to whatever he was trying to accomplish, but never presents a reason to care about his characters. His film is a mishmash of faux profundity that goes nowhere, a carefully constructed world with little to move it forward. The resulting emptiness leaves nothing to truly hate, but, even worse, nothing to love.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality.
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Thank you for your honest review. For me- plunky + inventive visuals aside, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” runs on a shaky motive, shaky like its camerawork – ‘poverty is arty!’ I’d still recommend seeing it!
Thanks, Nate! I’m glad people are seeing BEASTS, but I don’t understand all the hype and praise it’s garnered.
I love a review that convinces me not to see a movie, whether it’s positive or not. Thanks for this.
If anyone sees the film and likes it, please report back and let me know what served as your hook.