Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Love: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild falls into that much fawned over category of Sundance sweethearts turned summer sleepers.  It was a jabbered about favorite at last year's festival, and the underground hype leading up to its slow blossoming release made cliche mountains out of raw, low-budget molehills.  Is it magical and divine and sacred and so outside the norm it'll touch you with its juvenile profundity for the rest of your life?  Let's go with a tepid 'sort of', 'no', 'uh...definitely not' and 'well, I don't know, maybe?' on all of that and just agree to the very clear, very simple observation that it is indeed unlike anything else you're likely to see this year.  While not without its share of problems, Beasts effectively transforms the squalor and wreckage of Hurricane Katrina effected Louisiana (though the film is NOT explicitly about that event) into a fairy tale netherworld and marks a strong debut for director Benh Zeitlin.  When Beasts succeeds, it's a patchwork piece of folklore that feels ripped from the enchanted worlds of Hayao Miyazaki.  When it falls flat, it succumbs to a lack of cohesion and picks at the illusion of its pint-sized heroine.    
Like the best works of magic-realism, Beasts of the Southern Wild has a tenuous grip on the realities impacting its characters.  6-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her alcoholic father in the wilds of a place called the Bathtub.  Geographically speaking, they're placed on the Isle de Jean Charles out past the levees off the Southern edge of Lousiana, a point Zeitlin claims inspired the story [source], though the rest is fiction.  In the telling, the Bathtub sits in constant danger of being wiped out when the water chooses to rise.  If the icecaps melt, they go under, and what we see is a land of forest and swamp where the houses are ramshackle trailers and tin sheds built up on legs and ladders as though they housed Baba Yaga.  The population is small, they celebrate life constantly, they're surrounded by animals (as meat and as pets), their healers mix up roots in oversized jars, and the world is safe enough for little Hushpuppy to live in her own treehouse trailer across the field from her daddy's (Dwight Henry).  The water is a danger, the storms threaten, but the scariest thing in Hushpuppy's life is the mythological arrival of boar-monsters called aurochs and the idea of being left alone.  While her home looks like a first world nightmare of poverty, danger, and improper childcare; Hushpuppy navigates it with a assertive logic and convinces us- without fail- that the things we perceive as threats are the things she holds dear.  She's a survivor, but an innocent.  Her daddy is a bit of a loud-mouthed, meanish brute, but she loves him and he teaches her the skills to keep on living through the toughest of situations
The actors are untrained, the camera tends to shake, the locations are fairly wild, and the whole thing feels very nearly like a documentary gone rogue.  In some respects, these are the elements that make the film what it is.  Beasts feels homemade and special, like a hand drawn treasure map unfurled and marked with the scribbled insight of an overly philosophical child.  As the film is about a 6-year old girl, it's hard to argue too hard against its stumbling logic or the strange, vaguely unsatisfying way all the pieces of Hushpuppy's universe 'fit together just right'.  Zeitlin seems to want us to take the story as is or view it as a fictional artifact, and the crew he's assembled helps him work towards that goal in a way that's as admirable as it is refreshing.  While I'd disagree with the bombastic claims that young actress Quvenzhane Wallis is a "revelation", I'll freely admit that she's pretty damn good.  Wallis has just the right amount of sparky, wild-child power to compel even the biggest cynic to see things her way.  We believe her to be as fearless and capable as Hushpuppy herself, which puts her half way there at the outset.  Are there places where she seems too precocious?  Where it seems as though she's just repeating a line at a louder, more faux-mad pitch (think the Olsen twins on Full House)?  Absolutely.  But, I mean, the kid is 6.  You can't really ask for anything much better than this.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is -when the camera isn't shaking you into a stupor - a lovely piece of poetry about a petite bayou princess who slays her own dragons and defends her own kingdom.  As a bit of existential, ponderous folklore, you can't go wrong.  If Beasts could strike a balance between its current form and something like The Tree of Life, it might be perfect.  The problem is that where Malick's movie flew over heads, Beasts hits too low, which leads me to a situation where I found myself appreciating or admiring the film more than I found myself actually enjoying it.  There's a lot at work here, but quite a bit of it seems like the director reaching without knowing if his experiment will pay off.  To his credit, despite a bit of flux, the narrative is present -- it's just broken in a way that we understand doesn't fully make sense (even if we chalk it up to dream-logic).  The cliches, too, are unfortunately rampant.  For all the film's beauty, it's too easy to pick at its seams to find the places where extreme poverty is coated with a glossy, dreamy sheen, where common drunkards and uneducated 'everymen' drop mystical wisdom, where cold light is exchanged for something sentimental, starvation is an adventure, and a little girl speaks primarily in the tongue of a particularly eloquent poet dipping into dialect.  These arguments against the film exist, and if the film is still afloat come Oscar time we can expect them to surface en masse.  I expect it will be very much afloat, of course, and while I didn't find myself loving it, it is a film worthy of closer inspection.  With that, I'll leave you with a sentiment I don't think I've ever written before:  I really really wish this had been a 2D animated film from Studio Ghibli.  Same plot. Same structure. Same voice talent. Same look.  Just animated.  Yes. That's a request for a remake.   


  1. Guess what movie I went to watch while I was in your fair city last month?

    "Beasts feels homemade and special, like a hand drawn treasure map unfurled and marked with the scribbled insight of an overly philosophical child"

    That line killed me - mostly because it summed up in 23 words what I took 1000 words to NOT sum up! You're right - time and again in this review. The film is lush and jubilant, and perhaps it feels even more so because of its noted flaws. I do believe I'll have to give it another look before it leaves theatres.

    1. Ha! Fabulous. I saw your entry earlier today on the Chicago meet-up, bummed I missed it.

      Also, good! It's a tricky film to write about, I think, for exactly the reasons you just articulated. The flaws contribute to the film, even as they're so glaringly obvious. Once this hits DVD I plan on revisiting it, a few months and some discussion could make for a completely different viewing experience.


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