Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild wowed audiences at Sundance and Cannes, and garnered high praise from a lot of critics. I wish I could share the enthusiasm — and I might come nearer if the film wasn’t a solid eye-strain headache’s worth of shaky-cam — but the best I can do is to say that it’s interesting and I respect the attempt. I’ll also concede that the last 15-20 minutes of the film are much more engaging than its earlier parts. But try as I might, I neither liked the movie, nor did I find it the deeply profound work others have. And I hope that anyone reading this takes that last bit to heart, and factors in that others have indeed found it something special.
I admit I had reservations before I saw it, but I’ve also had similar reservations about movies that ended up on my list of top 10 favorite movies of all time. For that matter, I had serious misgivings about Safey Not Guaranteed, which I’ve now watched four times (I will not be watching Beasts four times). So I don’t think that’s really a factor, though in this case, the film lived up to those reservations and added to them. I went in expecting the shaky-cam stuff (though I didn’t expect it to be so all-pervasive) and, yes, I thought it detracted from nearly every scene. I thought I’d find the charismatic little girl’s performance to be more dependent on editing than acting, and I did. And I was afraid the film would romanticize poverty and present the characters as somehow noble because of it. It does — and I find it highly unlikely that the people who find the poverty and filth so ennobling would choose it themselves.
What I did not expect was that the film’s narrative would be almost completely held together by a series of amazingly quasi-poetic narrations by the little girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), whose story is at the center of the film. Then again, there’s really not that much narrative. You have this group of extremely impoverished people eking out a bare existence (apart, it seems, from copious amounts of alcohol) in a low-lying area near New Orleans called the Bathtub. Hushpuppy’s way of life is threatened because her abusive (but loving) father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is dying from one of those never-named movie diseases. But there’s a more pressing situation in the form of a big storm (presumably Hurricane Katrina) that will flood the Bathtub and destroy everyone’s way of life.
In the midst of all this, Hushpuppy has cobbled together a fantasy that global warming (insert stock shots of glaciers crumbling into the sea) is unleashing prehistoric beasts called aurochs, which in her mind look like giant pigs festooned with horns and wigs. (That actually comes off somewhat better than it sounds.) How well all this plays depends on the viewer. I was frankly a good bit bored until the last stretch of the film — and this last stretch where the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly blurred is pretty good. Does the mysterious trip to the floating dance hall (with its fantasy-suggestive name) where bored “hostesses” are glad to see anyone — even ragtag groups of little girls — actually happen? I don’t know, but I was glad it was in the movie because it (and the scenes that follow) at least came close to justifying the extravagant praise that’s been heaped on the picture.
I’d also note that the film has a pretty good supply of imagination — and certain notions (like Hushpuppy listening to the heartbeat of every living thing she encounters) — pay off over the course of the movie. However, unless you buy into the romance of poverty and all that goes with it, you may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about. This is a case, though, where I’d really suggest you find out for yourself. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality.