Beasts of the Southern Wild Benh Zeitlin
“I’m a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes me right,” our protagonist Hushpuppy narrates. The same can be said of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut feature-length by director Benh Zeitlin (who also wrote and scored the film) that won awards at both Sundance and Cannes. The film depicts a small, isolated community unrecognizably located in Louisiana, “The Bathtub.” Beasts struggles at first to accept its position as a small piece of a larger puzzle, intercutting footage of polar ice-caps melting and of what may be recreations of prehistoric times to foreshadow a hurricane that ravages their home. Within the first third of the film, we are rather explicitly presented with our own materialism, global warming, and reminded of the horrors of Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of a child, but the film quickly drops these themes. When it comes around, however, it’s hard not to be touched by the story of a father and daughter who share a strong love through the best and the worst. It is perhaps too similar to his short film Glory at Sea, but such a moving expansion on an idea that was begging to be elongated is always welcome, even if it does refuse to carry the torch that the earlier film lit.
Too much of Beasts takes place in doors to drive home the environmentalist message that the film falsely promises to be about. On the other hand, the outdoor shots filmed by a handheld camera (that shakes a tad too much to ignore in the tense sequences), bring both authenticity and beauty to the film that let us peer into a wildly different lifestyle. We watch the Bathtub’s school teacher gives a lesson. We watch Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, teaches his daughter how to catch fish, we see her break open her own crab for the first time, we understand she is being taught how to fend for herself, and we also understand the importance of this when we see her father in a hospital gown. Wink refuses to tell her daughter what is happening, so we feel a sense of urgency that nicely aids the youthful eyes through which we view the action. It brings importance to the smallest details.
Unfortunately, we are also painted a somewhat vulgar picture of the Bathtub’s residents, and even of Wink. Wink is constantly harsh, perhaps overly so on Hushpuppy; alcohol is constantly consumed; the treatment of a child wise beyond her years is frustrating, and Hushpuppy’s narration is much stronger than anything her father tells her. Wink is hasty and cruel, even unlikable, far too often. And yet, we never see the role-reversal between Wink and Hushpuppy, we never see him learn from her and never actually see her wisdom pay off. Beasts is expository where there is potential to expand, and so we are left with too many unintended questions regarding the people and lifestyle that are never raised by Hushpuppy. The audience is asked simply to accept, just as a child is asked simply to accept.
However, the film is redeemed by its emotional power. Wink has moment of unexpected and unequaled complexity about two-thirds of the way through the film, a far-cry from the childish fights that the two engage in throughout most of the movie, one that brings the father-daughter dynamic to a new height that resonates within Hushpuppy for the remainder of the film. There is another in the film’s penultimate scene that almost addresses all of the concerns an unconvinced audience member would have, but Zeitlin conceals a crucial line from our earshot. He previously did this masterfully, allowing a few major words that Hushpuppy would be weary of, but here he denies us one of her lines, and because the entire movie is from her point of view, it is both frustrating and a major misstep in the narrative structure. The result is moving nonetheless, but it would certainly have been even more so if we had heard Hushpuppy’s words.
At the end of the day, Beasts of the Southern Wild is as moving as it is flawed, as satisfying as it is overambitious. Its failures are often derived from its strength and vice versa. Still, it is certainly the satisfaction and the power that stays with you and the film is so boldly original that it would not be surprising for some flaws to go entirely unnoticed. I would not call Beasts of the Southern Wild a great movie, but it is quite possibly the sign of a great director in the works. There are moments that are as gorgeous or as touching as anything you’re likely to see all year, and where it fails, it fails by trying too hard. In that sense, it’s not a failure at all. Instead, it’s an astonishing success that leaves us with such a strong appetite for more that it’s hard for us to just enjoy what we have.7 June, 2012 - 09:01 — Forrest Cardamenis