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Guest Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

While I’ve never actually gone to a major film festival, I pay attention to the news that comes out of them. The Cannes and Sundance festivals, among others, are windows through which we can glimpse what will soon be coming to a theater near us. If a film is received well and manages to win prizes and favor, there’s a very good chance that a major distribution company will pick it up and promote the heck out of it. If that happens, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be the next Little Miss Sunshine, an award-studded plateau that any independent feature would want to reach. So when a movie comes out of Cannes and Sundance with as much vigor as Beasts of the Southern Wild, not to mention preceded by a trailer positively seething with fantastical energy, then you would expect it to be among the best of the year.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is certainly unlike anything you or I have seen to this point. Taking place in the “Bathtub” – evoking rural Louisiana or its surroundings – it’s the story of Hushpuppy (the absolutely irresistible Quevenzhane Wallis), a six year-old girl living with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). The Bathtub is a delta community consciously set apart from the industrialized world; its people would rather live here, where the liquor flows freely and celebrations are daily, than be any part of any organized society. The film shows Hushpuppy’s journey to adulthood and discovery of her place in the universe, defined by family tragedy and the eventual storm that attempts to wipe the Bathtub off the map.

The scenery, acting and story (based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious) all combine for a truly original cinematic experience. And as we sit through the setup of this unique universe, it’s difficult not to be charmed by the lives of Hushpuppy and her community, normal people who just want to live life on their own terms. The relationship between Hushpuppy and her father, which is a major focal point of the story, is also extremely fascinating. Wink certainly loves and cares about his daughter, but it’s also plainly obvious that he really wanted a son. This can be interpreted from his speech, in which he constantly refers to her as “Man” (and once as a “stupid little girl”) and makes statements such as “You’re gonna be the King of the Bathtub” and “Who the Man?” (referring to Hushpuppy). It’s not so much misogyny as anxiety: the worry Wink feels when he thinks about how his daughter will survive if he’s not there to take care of her. He hopes that by treating Hushpuppy like the son he never had, she will become strong enough to protect herself when the time comes. It’s this relationship that drives the film, carrying it smoothly from scene to scene, and the two newcomers make the whole thing work thanks to their matter-of-fact takes on the material they’re given.

Unfortunately, a film that gets off to a strong start doesn’t always have the momentum to keep moving forward, and Beasts begins to flag after the eerily Katrina-like hurricane sinks the Bathtub early on. First-time director Ben Zeitlin does a courageous job adapting Alibar’s play to the big screen and pulls in the perfect duo of Wallis and Henry to lead his little indie, but ultimately fails in keeping the premise fresh beyond the first act. A lackluster supporting cast and muddy plot points (such as the survivors of the hurricane being snatched up and brought to the city “for their own good”) do little to further illustrate what the film had already done an excellent job of expressing. Ultimately it feels as though there just isn’t enough meat on the story’s bones to make into a full-length motion picture.

Another point of contention I have is with the usage of the Aurochs, the film’s fantastical prehistoric creatures. In Beasts’ mythology, they have awoken after thawing out of the polar ice caps (in a thoroughly unsubtle message) and are making their way to the Bathtub because they sense the perceived weakness in Hushpuppy. The Aurochs represent the bestial strength it takes for man to survive, and I would have been perfectly fine if the creatures had remained pure allegory. But the moment the Aurochs becomes a real, flesh and blood things, the film ‘jumps the shark,’ and what should have been a fantastical element for the story becomes a cheap plot device, complete with clichéd battle of wills between man and beast. It was a wasted gesture, and not the only one here.

I don’t want people getting the idea that I didn’t like Beasts of the Southern Wild. It does have some breathtaking sequences, unparalleled acting from Wallis and Henry, and it successfully tells the story of the universe as seen through the eyes of a six year-old girl. It’s certainly one of the more unusual tales you’ll see this year, and that alone is deserving of much praise. But Zeitlin has not knocked this one out of the park, and with rival independents Moonrise Kingdom and Safety Not Guaranteed still kicking around out there, I’d be hard-pressed to state that this is a film you should go see instead. For a title that won both the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Beasts kicks up some great moments, but only manages to eke out a pretty good movie. While I’ll keep tabs on Zeitlin for future reference, Beasts of the Southern Wild was simply not the film it absolutely should have been.

 

John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in the Boston area. Check out Hello, Mr. Anderson for regularly-released movie reviews.