By Elbert Ventura
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Dir. Benh Zeitlin, U.S., Fox Searchlight
A deft replica of its idiosyncratic forebears, Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the most ambitious debut features to come out of American cinema in years—and one of the most calculated. The buzz out of Sundance came at us like the storm at the center of Benh Zeitlin’s movie; the trailer, suggesting a miraculous melding of Terrence Malick and Spike Jonze, stoked anticipation to fever pitch. Arriving in theaters with a Camera d’Or from Cannes, a Grand Jury Prize from Park City, and an army of partisans from all points, the anointed indie sensation of the season may well end up the most acclaimed American feature of the year. Credit Zeitlin for thinking big; chide critics for thinking that that’s enough.
The story of the movie’s making has been rehashed ad nauseam that no more than a précis is needed here. Zeitlin, Wesleyan grad and Brooklyn resident, moved (along with his collective, Court 13) to post-Katrina New Orleans to make movies. Inspired by the endangered coastal communities of the South, he and Lucy Alibar (adapting her play) concocted Beasts, a tale set in an isolated marshland called the Bathtub, home to fringe dwellers who persist despite—or because of—its separation from civilization. The figurative beasts roaming this wild are a rowdy, multiracial collection of misfits and vagrants, living happily in ramshackle shanties and off the waterlogged land.
At the center of this postapocalyptic utopian vision is a six-year-old firecracker named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). In voiceover right out of the Days of Heaven school of naïf narration, Hushpuppy waxes philosophical: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.” That universe is about to be torn asunder. “Storm’s coming!” a little boy warns the Bathtub’s residents, who hunker down rather than leave their homes. All this happens as Wink (Dwight Henry), Hushpuppy’s hard-drinking, tough-loving father, suffers from ominous symptoms possibly related to a heart ailment, which he keeps secret from Hushpuppy. More trouble awaits: In one of the movie’s more audacious touches, a herd of aurochs—prehistoric beasts frozen in the glaciers but now free to roam the warming earth—is headed the Bathtub’s way, a free-floating (and frankly redundant) metaphor. Never too far from Hushpuppy’s thoughts is her mother, who “swam away” when she was just a baby, and whom Hushpuppy imagines is the distant light on the oil rig on the horizon—a flourish a touch too twee.
A child of folklorists, Zeitlin has myth on the mind. With its setting and scenario—a storm, a busted levee, and federal emergency workers figure heavily—Beasts uses the elements of real-life tragedy as the raw material for magic-realist, freak-folklore. Storytelling is nothing less than a gesture of defiance. Reflecting on her teacher’s tales of cave paintings, Hushpuppy ruminates on her own need to leave a mark for future generations to discover: “In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”
But posterity’s for later; there is the present to deal with. With Hushpuppy’s daddy sick and her mommy long gone, the movie emerges as a paean to the resilience of children. Recalling a touchstone of Southern gothic, Charles Laughton’s great The Night of the Hunter (its last line, on children: “they abide and they endure”), Beasts finds comfort for the vulnerable in the village. Indeed, the Bathtub is an inspired creation, an idealized community where lines between young and old, black and white are obliterated, and where everyone is united by grinding poverty and existential ecstasy. Floating around in a pickup-truck bed turned jury-rigged boat, Hushpuppy is docent to this romanticized hardscrabble world. The denizens are always drunk, feasting, hollering, or all of the above—but never less than loving. Kusturican bricolage is the natural state, juxtaposed against the antiseptic order and artificiality of civilization. (“Ain’t that ugly over there?” says Wink pointing at the power plants beyond the levee, lest we miss the point.) No less redolent of Kusturica is the bacchanalia that serves as the overture, a Bathtub-wide celebration that opens the movie on a high note. It’s hard not to get swept up in the revelry, replete with rug-rat carnival races and sparklers in the night—a high this squalid fantasia never recaptures.
It’s not for lack of trying. Beasts all but heaves with exertion attempting to cast its spell. It sometimes succeeds thanks to Wallis, an undoubtedly magnetic presence whose turn is the latest in a string of terrific child performances this year (Thomas Doret in The Kid With a Bike; the kids—all of them—in Moonrise Kingdom). Her ferocity is equal to that of Henry, a baker who has also never acted but who is something fearsome as the Bathtub’s unofficial king. And some of Zeitlin’s touches are bracing: The march of the aurochs is beautifully rendered and reminiscent of Spike Jonze (with whom unit director Ray Tintori has actually worked); shots of an indifferent natural world—not to mention the voiceover—evoke Malick.
But Beasts is ultimately less than the sum of its inventions and influences. Malick and Jonze are just two of the film’s touchstones; many reviews of the film invariably find their way to an elevator pitch—Gilliam meets Malick! (Early) David Gordon Green meets Kusturica! The movie feels less the irrepressible expression of a coherent worldview than a carefully studied checklist of idols, mixed and matched for maximum effect. The result is a perpetual wonder machine spitting out borrowed epiphanies—a compendium of tributes to idiosyncratic artists, but not itself an idiosyncratic vision. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being an overweening would-be auteur who sports his influences on his sleeve. Many of us have embraced Tarantino and Wes Anderson, who can fairly be described as walking filmographies unabashed about their influences. But after watching a Tarantino or an Anderson movie, we feel like we just had an intimate conversation with the director. The same isn’t true of Beasts. There is no intimacy here, no sense that Zeitlin has spilled something personal. At its worst, it comes across as a carefully conceived, technically assured, superbly camouflaged bit of festival pandering.
The slovenly setting and gruff histrionics might blind critics from seeing Beasts as a profoundly frictionless experience. (It’s a feel-good movie for people who pretend they don’t like feel-good movies.) Worse, a whiff of opportunism wafts through the entire project. Zeitlin’s intentions in decamping to New Orleans may be noble. What’s on the screen, however, only encourages skepticism: a deployment of Katrina for some counterfeit heft, the sprinkling of pixie dust on the lives of the poor, outsider-art posturing from a film-school grad. Beasts suffers in comparison to some recent points of reference. Compare its depiction of the black underclass, for instance, with that in Lance Hammer’s restrained Ballast. Or its story of a father and child on the margins of society with Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar, which had a purity and grace that Beasts can only mimic. It’s all topped off by incoherent politics: here’s an ostensibly progressive depiction of the marginalized whose parting political lesson is that government is a destroyer of communities, families, self-reliance, and freedom. (You won’t see a more poignant argument for why we should’ve left the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward alone.)
A beautiful lie of a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is too studied to be authentic but too audacious to be dismissed. It’s a problem film, and not just because critical consensus will all but foreclose the kind of discussion films like this should instigate: on the ethics of representation, on the responsibilities of artists, on the rights to stories. Weeks after my first viewing, I still can’t shake its images—nor my initial skepticism. Much like Hushpuppy, Zeitlin demands that we pay attention. His movie achieves that objective, but it feels made—to borrow from Pauline Kael—“with both his eyes on the audience.” Faux primal but authentically adroit, it’s less cave painting than calling card.