Beasts of the Southern Wild-attachment0

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Movie Information

The Story: A fantasy-oriented drama about the lives of the poor in a low-lying area outside New Orleans as seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl. The Lowdown: A highly praised indie that is marred by too much deliberately shaky handheld camerawork and sketchy philosophical underpinnings. Lots of imagination and a strong final section help.
Genre: Drama Fantasy
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper
Rated: PG-13

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.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “Beasts of the Southern Wild

  1. Tonberry

    Agreed. As you know, I was looking much more forward to “Beasts of the Southern WIld” than you, and I ended up disappointed, the reasons are all discussed in your review above. It gets me frustrated, because some of the ideas and material I like, I just don’t care for all of the directors choices to handle them. The prime example is the use of shaky-cam. It comes across as ‘hey, look at me, I’m following this arty trend!’ than it being essential and true to the story. (Someone mentioned that ‘The Hurt Locker’ was the only movie that they liked the usage of shaky-cam, and I agree with that. I can’t recall ever being bothered by it in that film, and this might be because it was the best way to tell that story.)

    It’s not all bad. Yes, I liked those Aurochs. And the music may just be the movies strongest aspect, I’ve had that main theme stuck in my head for days now. My disappointment aside, I think Benh Zeitlin could be a director to watch as soon as he drops the current trend and develop his own style. Flashes of this occurs in the beginning and middle, mostly in the end. Too bad it isn’t the whole movie.

  2. Ken Hanke

    One of my bigger troubles with it is as much thematic as stylistic. I just don’t get into romanticizing poverty.

  3. Tonberry

    I just don’t get into romanticizing poverty.

    I have a trouble with that too. The more I think about how its treated in this movie, the more it seems to get me upset.

  4. Ken Hanke

    “You see, sir, the poor know all about being poor and only the idle rich would find the topic an interesting one.”

    –Robert Greig in Sullivan’s Travels

  5. Orbit DVD

    I might pass on this one. I think it might be over-hyped by now.

  6. Xanadon't

    So which is generally more off-putting, I wonder? Romanticizing poverty or trying to elicit sympathy toward people of privilege for all the unappreciated woes that they’re faced with- as with last year’s The Company Men? (Never saw it, but your review came to mind)

    And how will Queen of Versailles fit into the discussion? Of the three titles in question, there’s little doubt that I’m most likely to see Beasts of the Southern Wild at some point or another.

  7. Edwin Arnaudin

    And how will Queen of Versailles fit into the discussion?

    It’s the best of the three. Part of its appeal, in the context of this question, is the quasi-ambiguity of its purpose. I still can’t decide to what extent the director wants us to have sympathy for the Siegels (at least a little, on a certain level) and how much of it is simply laughter and eye-rolling at the ridiculousness of the obscenely rich (which dominates the film). The see-sawing makes for an entertaining yet frustrating time and offers plenty of room for discussion.

    …to be continued in a few weeks.

  8. Ken Hanke

    So which is generally more off-putting, I wonder? Romanticizing poverty or trying to elicit sympathy toward people of privilege for all the unappreciated woes that they’re faced with- as with last year’s The Company Men? (Never saw it, but your review came to mind)

    I think this is. I’d rather see the poverty, ignorance, and squalor ignored than painted as somehow desirable or at least as a meaningful way of life for purposes of a kind of cultural tour. To me the film is just too much like a visit to some sort of native village, only with “here we see the native women stringing beads” replaced with “and now we see the locals get blind drunk.”

    I haven’t seen Queen of Versailles yet. That may change this weekend.

  9. Me

    What would you say to a statement like this Ken?

    “The Bathtub is not a place where money exists. The whole idea of the Bathtub is that it

  10. Ken Hanke

    I’d ask, first of all, where this completely self-sustained community gets its alcohol (no sign that they make it). Next, I’d ask about that first trip to the hospital that Hushpuppy Sr. must have taken. Then, I’d ask where they get the propane gas and electricity. Next, I’d ask (dreading the answer) where you got this reading. My idea of a “utopian place” doesn’t include abusive fathers who drink to excess and wallop their kids and everyone lives in squalor and filth. But, hey, that’s just me.

  11. Ken Hanke

    Well, good heavens, of course he believes that, since it was the director talking!

    Okay, so it comes across as its own little world, even though the “place without money” idea doesn’t explain how they pay for the bare necessities (and alcohol) they’re shown having. Fine. The whole thing plays like — and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the idea — some right wing fantasy that the poor like being poor, that extreme poverty is a life choice.

    What I still want to know with all these people who think that life in the Bathtub is such a glorious thing is this — how many of them want to live like that? For that matter, how mahy of them would welcome it in their backyard or even down the street?

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