Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild was the hit of Sundance 2012, and so it was with great anticipation that I attended a press screening of it a few months back. I’d heard it compared to the Southern Gothic abstractions of pre-sellout David Gordon Green, or even the dreamy lyricism of Terrence Malick. Perhaps my expectations were too high, however, because Beasts did not connect with me at all.

I’ll say this for the film: it’s definitely unique; certainly visionary. Director Benh Zeitlin’s debut is set in a magic-realist environment somewhere between post-Katrina New Orleans and Where the Wild Things Are, and it features a memorable central character in Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl trying to survive some sort of melting icecaps apocalypse in a town called Bathtub, with her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry).

But while Beasts succeeds at immersing the audience in a curious, evocative American world–a kind of mishmash between the rundown Americana of Green’s George Washington, the river adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and (cringe) Kevin Costner’s Water World–the film fails to tie its abundance of motifs, allusions, and themes together in a coherent, compelling story.

There are too many ideas going on in this film, and most of them feel dropped in haphazardly. There are notions of global warming hinted at, references to levees and the race/class frictions churned up by Katrina, jabs at bureaucracy and welfare, and all manner of unintelligible voiceover philosophizing (again, hat tip Malick and D.G. Green) like “When all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.” Then there are the “we’re all just beasts!” themes that riff on Darwin and make commentary on the survival instincts which bind man and animal. Does any of it make sense? Is it meant to? Probably not.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the film’s sense of reality is intentionally ambiguous: We know the narrative is in some sense from Hushpuppy’s point of view, but it’s unclear whether some or all of it is in her imagination. Which may very well be the point. But regardless, it comes across more as a frustrating mess than a “just enjoy the ride” impressionistic tone poem (which I think it aspires to be).

I loved the world of this film, and the photography and (sometimes) the music. The first ten minutes or so are really superb. And I’ll be darned if Hushpuppy isn’t the most adorably precocious, pint-sized heroine since Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine.

But as the film goes on it feels more and more contrived, with emotional highs and lows that the film doesn’t earn and  audiences shouldn’t be expected to be moved by. In the end, the film’s utopian, dream-like celebration of Southern culture and a sort of “it takes a village” communitarianism rings somewhat false. Sure, it may be Zeitlin’s goal to offer audiences a hopeful, idealistic vision in the midset of cynical times; but hopeful visions only work if they feel authentic. In the case of Beasts, I agree with Slate critic Dana Stevens that “Zeitlin’s adoring gaze on the Bathtubbers’ chaotic-yet-joyous way of life smacks of anthropological voyeurism: Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ nonsense all over again, but with crawdads and zydeco.”

Fans of the film may disagree and say I’m reading too much into Beasts–that it’s a film not to be understood but to be experienced. And indeed, I suspect that Zeitlin had an “experience” film in mind here. But I’ve seen (and loved) far more abstract “experience” films about childhood (George WashingtonParanoid Park, Ratcatcher, to name a few) than this, and they worked for me. I think that’s because the most successful “experience” films have as much restraint as they have experimental vision. They don’t try to overstuff the film with ideas, but rather focus on perfecting the tone and letting beautiful sequences and aesthetic brushstrokes lead the way in the creation of a mood.

The problem with Beasts is that it raises too many distracting questions in the viewer’s mind to allow them to be fully present in the experience. The aesthetics are great but not great enough to pull us out of our cognitive impulses to understand what is happening and why. And ultimately, the world is too foreign and whimsical to relate to anyway. Unless you surved Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward by living in a treehouse trailer. But even then I bet Beasts feels forced.

4 responses to “Beasts of the Southern Wild

  1. Indeed, you are reading to much into the film. What it tried to do with its magical realism, it succeeded quiet well. MMR

  2. While I think your strong criticism is a bit reactionary, I completely share your experience and impression of the film. My expectations were equally raised and I found the film more manipulative than magical; more confused than intentionally ambiguous. It succeeded in creating a unique and evocative world… it provides a truly singular vision… but it stuffs so many things in without really connecting them, it has too many conflicting internal ethics, and ultimately left me far colder than it strived to do. An achievement to be sure, but not the revelatory piece of pure cinema many are making it out to be.

  3. I say it’s reactionary because I think you and I both would have looked upon the film at least a little more favorably if it hadn’t already been so universally anointed as the new version of two of our favorite filmmakers.

  4. I loved the film, but I think this review makes some excellent points. Also, it really is too bad Waterworld wasn’t better. Imagine if bayou steampunk could be an aesthetic linked with good filmmaking.

    However I do think Dana Steven’s accusation of the film embodying Rousseau-esque anthropological voyeurism is an outstanding backwards assessment. Between her and Zeitlin, Stevens is likely the only one who ever thought the word “savage” when looking at the Bathtub community. The filmmaker has been focused on communities similar to the one in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and seems to have put in the time and effort required to understand the culture and people he is imaging. This is not his first rodeo in a post-Katrina New Orleans reminiscent world. His short film “Glory at Sea” featured a similar waterfront setting and culture and he seems to have a history with the people. Exoticism was a surprising accusation, which I read before seeing the film. I viewed Beasts of the Southern Wild looking for this kind of over romanticized Other-ing gaze, but didn’t feel that the filmmakers were at fault of it at all.

    There is a lot in this film that Hollywood needs more of, and I think Beasts of the Southern Wild deserves to not only be cited as including them, but also for succeeding in them. Speaking of exoticism, this film I thought actually subverted that trend. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a strong community-oriented feature. Good films or bad ones, I just want to see if they’ll show up at all, wondering if people still are able to view narrative beyond an individualist perspective. There were two black lead characters in a film that was very multi-racial. There was a strong female lead, something I see little else besides in Miyazaki’s stories, but of course, that is not American. Most of the black characters were not given token roles or situations, and if they were, they were given humanity enough to redeem those clichés.
    The tightrope of magic realism is a gateway into more transcendent ideas that I think our generation is rightly craving, but few filmmakers know how to convey the genre well. Zeitlin showed a lot of promise with this and balancing reality within the fantastical metaphors and aesthetics in Glory at Sea and they are vastly improved in Beasts of the Southern Wild, in fact exceeding my expectations. Familiarity was present in the humanity I thought, and I found myself instantly engaged, to balance out the whimsical aspects. Here, the film’s collision of diary with fable seemed to work well with Hushpuppy’s highly imaginative worldview. I always hope to see more of mythic, fantastical elements in cinema if they are done right, but even in this film I thought it definitely wasn’t too foreign of a world. Maybe it’s just me, but I remember drawing Auroxen and other extinct ancient creatures as a boy, as well as sitting over rivers trying to catch crayfish.

    The comparison to Malick to me is completely understandable, but I think at a certain point it becomes a bit unfair, the budget and experience of the directors aside. Regarding the voiceover: it makes sense to have Hushpuppy as the narrator, and to have her musings communicated through spoken language. Given that her character was quiet, the voiceover was a welcome vehicle to showcase her essential thoughts. She’s also not the adults featured in Malick’s films, so her thoughts can’t be too deeply philosophical, or it would have lost me. It is disjointed, but I would assume her character has somewhat of a less than concrete worldview formed. She’s dealing with many ideas and we are able to see them in a way that seems honest. She’s a person, and by the end of the movie I get a sense of that person. The ideas are not exactly fully formed and mature, but she is beginning to dig. I hope for her and she gives me hope as well. The film did introduce many themes, but for all of their brevity, they were always taken seriously in a way that was refreshing.

    All that said, I do wish the philosophical elements were tied in a bit better, and it did feel a bit more “quick” than I would have liked, but I think it’s a story that is worth a second look.

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