‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’, directed by Benh Zeitlin, was the surprise winner of the Camera d’Or Award at Cannes, and the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at Sundance. A surprise to me because I don’t think the movie is very good. The plot: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a six-year-old girl who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in “The Bathtub”, a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink is an abrasive, physically abusive alcoholic dying of some vague illness. Tough love – he’s got to prepare her for a time when he no longer can protect her. After this, I’m not sure I know what the movie is really about, but I’ll attempt a basic flow-chart: Temperatures rise —> Ice caps melt —>The Bathtub gets flooded —> Prehistoric creatures arise and roam the tub —> Hushpuppy searches for mom. The film is also narrated by Hushpuppy in a “Kids Say The Darndest Things” fashion.
Given the two major film festival awards this film has received, I can only assume I’m in the minority on this one. But, it does have its charms. Quvenzhané Wallis is a very compelling force of nature, and the rest of this cast of non-professional actors is very good (even though Dwight Henry is doing a Samuel L Jackson impersonation, at least it’s a good impersonation). Much of the film looks very pretty, especially considering the constraints of its more than likely shoestring budget – the credit here goes to cinematographer Ben Richardson. Some of the film’s imagery has resonated in my psyche, the most memorable one being young Hushpuppy running through a field with sparklers during a festival (yes, I know this is the poster of the film, but the image still sticks). There is also Zeitlin’s fetish for the thighs of middle-aged women – or so the camera zooms in on her leg to show us a tattoo that we wouldn’t have seen as clearly from a distance.
I’ve praised the performances of the cast members above, but they’re all underdeveloped as characters. Hushpuppy encounters a number of people through the course of her journey including a captain of a fishing boat who collects fried chicken wrappers, a woman who dances with her at a brothel, FEMA operatives on a mission, etc. etc. With the exception of her father, these characters are without flaw (and even his character has such a quick turnaround that it isn’t believable). Surely, the aftermath of a natural disaster would leave at least some of its victims with feelings of disconcertment, and outrage. There is a sense of artificiality to this community – these characters exist to aid Hushpuppy in her journey without any hesitation.
The cloying score, composed by Dan Rohmer and Benh Zeitlin, smothers every inch of this picture. They try just a little too hard in trying to manipulate your emotions with it. The greater they tried, the more I was able to resist. Based on the reactions of the audience members at my test screening, I suppose I should recommend bringing a Kleenex. I don’t think that this movie deserves your tears though.
The biggest problem I had with ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ had to do with the decisions made by the characters. The residents of The Bathtub seem to believe that they are self-sufficient. If their community bands together, they will get by. They don’t need outside help. False! What makes this a fully functioning community? The fact that they like to get drunk, play with fireworks, and dance to folk music? Government aid workers evacuate The Bathtub and whilst they quarantine its populace (prior to relocation), Hushpuppy and crew escape the hospital, and return to The Bathtub. They see this as a victory. I do not. They have chosen to return without outside assistance. They have chosen poverty. Are they celebrating their freedom of choice? I think the film is celebrating desolation, and insubordination.
‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is an overly optimistic fantasy about a natural disaster that revealed the good-heartedness of man as opposed to the formation of a chaotic, violent society. I admired Zeitlin’s attempt to create a unique viewing experience, but the film’s grating score, underdeveloped characters, and plot devices kept me at a distance. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend it.
Note: For those of you prone to bouncy camerawork, several audience members left this screening due to motion sickness. I didn’t find the rough visual style to be a distraction, but clearly others did. QED.
– Jerry Nadarajah