Something about loss and tragedy renews the respect people have for the people places and things in our culture that had gone overlooked since their heydays. Just look at the sales surge that the catalogs of Michael Jackson and Whitney Huston experienced in the wake of their respective deaths. These two former stars, who the public had dismissed as a pedophile and a crackhead respectively, were suddenly seen as musical treasures once again by a public that was almost embarrassed to have spent so much time focusing solely on the negative aspects of these stars’ lives rather than their talents. This phenomenon was seen perhaps at its largest scale after the tragedy that befell the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds of thousands of people who formerly saw New Orleans as little more than the setting for “Girls Gone Wild” videos, were now suddenly aficionados of brass bands and Cajun cuisine. The gulf coast was now rather sheik, and to some extent that’s a good thing; New Orleans has a tourist economy and they could certainly use the attention. The thing is, there’s a feeling that things are only going to get worse for that region. They just got done dealing with the oil spill, the New Orleans crime rate and poverty levels are shameful, and no matter what they’re still going to be living in an area that is at the mercy of the river levels.
The new independent sensation, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a look at a sort of worst case scenario for a group of people living in this region in the not too distant future. In the world of the film, the polar icecaps have been melting and the Gulf coast has been slowly sinking beneath the water. The bulk of the story takes place in a section called “The Bathtub,” an elevated section of land that has become an island of sorts surrounded by water. The audience is not privy to the broader details of all this however, because the bulk of the story is told from the perspective of a six year old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a shack with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and appears to live off of food that’s hunted in the wild. Though the water is rising and it’s looking increasingly impossible to continue living in “The Bathtub,” but Wink and a handful of other residents in the tight knit community insist that they will never leave their homes. All of this is made all the more whimsical by Hushpuppy’s vision of her surroundings, which involves other fantasy elements like literal beasts called “aurochs” which are roaming the land and becoming a threat as surroundings become more and more inhospitable.
There’s a certain breed of movie that often comes out of Sundance that I’ve come to call “anthropology movies.” These are films that get so wrapped up in documenting the lifestyle of some group of poor people in some squalid corner of America that they forget to actually tell a story. I thought that the good but generally over-rated 2010 drama Winter’s Bone suffered from this to some extent, and I also definitely saw aspects of it in this movie, especially during its first half. What differentiates the film is that instead of going to rigid authenticity, director Benh Zeitlin has ratcheted up the squalor to almost Harmony Korine levels of depravity. We see Hushpuppy live in a meager shack with minimal supervision and at one point she even eats dog food in order to live. It’s pretty rough stuff, though often undercut by Hushpuppy’s general innocence and an odd undercurrent of macabre humor.
I found almost all of the adult characters in the film to be roundly unlikable dickheads, especially Hushpuppy’s father Wink, who insists on staying in “The Bathtub” beyond all reason. Why these people are so insistent that they remain living in a hellish and poverty stricken area that’s about to be underwater is beyond me, these aren’t New Orleanians creating unique forms of music and culture out of their surroundings, they’re Bayou rednecks living in what most people would call misery. Zeitlin seems to see a lot more nobility in these people’s lifestyle than I do and beyond a party scene early in the film I don’t think he shows enough of the upside of living in “The Bathtub” in order for the audience to fully understand their motivation to stay. To his credit Zeitlin does choose to tell the story from the perspective of the one character in this situation who can’t be expected to know better, a six year old, but that decision can be a double edged sword: had the perspective opened up a bit we might have gotten more of the context of the situation and had a better idea of what’s going on in this world and why Wink seems to think it’s such an injustice that he can’t live in a horrible place that’s soon to die. As it is the film can get really frustrating as we watch Wink and the other adults make horrible decision after horrible decision for reasons that just aren’t clear.
While I never really latched onto the story that’s being told by Beasts of the Southern Wild, I could certainly appreciate some of the filmmaking on display. Zeitlin does a lot with a small budget and was clearly influenced by Terrence Malick, employing that director’s lyrical camerawork and use of voice-over quite nicely. He also seamlessly incorporates more fantastical elements like “aurochs,” which are sort of walking symbols for the challenges that Hushpuppy faces in life. The film also features an excellent score by music producer Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin himself which manages to reflect the bayou setting while also being both intense and whimsical, it’s a score that improves the film immeasurably and many of the film’s images wouldn’t have worked if they were accompanied by lesser musical accompaniment. There’s also some pretty strong acting to be found from the film’s largely unknown cast. While I didn’t connect much with his character, Dwight Henry does do a good job portraying Hushpuppy’s father, and while I’m not sure how much credit I want to lay on a six year old for what’s on screen, Quvenzhané Wallis is an interesting presence on screen who manages to function as a main character on screen without seeming “wise beyond her years” in the slightest.
It’s not particularly easy to reach a final judgment on a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild because I can certainly see why a lot of people are going to like it a lot and for good reasons. It’s a well made film and Benh Zeitlin certainly establishes himself as a talent to watch, but the fact still remains that I never really connected with the movie. Maybe it’s because I have trouble connecting with films told from the perspective of small children or maybe my city clicker biases led me to be unfairly judgmental towards the film’s characters. I may need to see the film again before delivering a final personal verdict, but I’m still going to recommend the film to any film-literate audience. There are moments of excellence to be found in the film that shouldn’t be missed, and as this is sure to be a major point of discussion this year I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from seeing it and coming up with an opinion of their own.
*** out of Four