Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fascinating film, and I’m not quite sure I’ve figured it out yet. It looks stunning, especially considering the relatively tiny budget, and it features two stunning lead performances from newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. However, there’s a sense that movie lacks substance, that Zeitlin’s ethereal coming of age fantasy lacks a firm grounding necessary to convince us to embark with the young Hushpuppy on her coming of age adventure.
Zeitlin’s film certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of technical skill, and it’s immediately clear that the director has an eye for the beauty, capturing the New-Orleans-inspired “bathtub” in all its surreally fantastical glory. There’s any number of elements here that seem far more creative and deftly constructed than in films with multiples of the budget, and there’s a shrewd ingenuity in the way that Zeitlin manages to create a world that seems quite like our own, yet strangely disconnected.
That said, I can’t help but feel like the camera work gets a little over-excited at times – particularly during the opening few minutes. it eventually settles down, but Zeitlin seems in a dizzying hurry to capture the beauty of the world he has created for us. It is disorienting, as if we’re being manhandled and thrown around, the film racing to take in a whole feast of visual delights instead of allowing us the time to digest. Zeitlin shows a bit more restraint once the film gets going, but the opening few minutes feel like a shaky-cam film.
The film is anchored in the character of Hushpuppy, the young girl trying to make her way in a world that seems to be hovering on the brink of destruction. Zeitlin makes frequent visual reference to the melting of the ice-caps and the flooding of the Bayou, but Hushpuppy faces her own personal uncertainties. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she seems to struggle to interact with her father. He’s cold and aggressive – but not just towards her. He stubbornly refuses to evacuate the rapidly-sinking community, almost bullying those who opt to take their family to safety while he waits behind.
Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry play the father and daughter team, and it’s hard to believe that Zeitlin so successfully recruited two untrained and inexperienced performers for the roles. Through the force of their collective personalities, Wallis and Henry keep Beasts of the Southern Wild a fascinating experience for most of its runtime. Wallis turns in a fantastic performance as the young girl adapting to the world at large, an old soul trapped in a young body, while Henry is responsible for any shred of relatability that exists within her emotionally (and physically) abusive father.
However, that’s one of the problems with Beasts of the Southern Wild. Hushpuppy’s father is downright brutal towards his daughter. He forces her to live on her own. When fate pushes them together, he draws a line down the middle of the shack so that she won’t stray into his side. He objects to his daughter using a knife to open up a crab – apparently tools are for wimps or something. While “the Bathtub” is flooding, he speaks with nothing but disdain for the people on the opposite side of “the levy” – people who offered him and the other people in the unsustainable wilderness shelter and protection.
You could argue – and the film seems to make the case – that Hushpuppy’s father is seeking to “toughen her up” so that she can survive life in a vast and unfair universe. It’s a valid point, until it’s made clear that he’s living in an unsustainable wasteland by choice. Regardless of who is responsible for the environmental damage or economic disparity, Hushpuppy’s father has the choice between being sure his daughter can eat and get an education, or living in a small community that is dwindling and dying.
Of course, the film strains to portray his decision as somewhat noble. The forces intruding into his domain are anonymous and aggressive, of course. The only hint of civilisation we see anonymous relocation centres and tall industrial buildings. He jokes with Hushpuppy about what people on the other side of the Levy call living. (Interestingly, the residents of the Levy don’t seem to be entirely self-sustaining. They use petrol to fuel their boats, they wear shirts and jeans that clearly weren’t fashioned locally. It suggests that perhaps Hushpuppy’s father is a little bit of a hypocrite.)
However, it becomes just a bit too much when he makes the decision for his young daughter who has no real knowledge or experience of the world. It also seems a bit vindictive of him to launch an attack on the forces on the other side of the levy when they have offered to help. He protests, “I’m not starving while them people is buying groceries.”The solution, then, would be to accept their offer of help, not to launch a terrorist attack on a bunch of people concerned about the fact you’re raising your daughter what is the middle of the ocean.
I really dislike that the film makes me sound like some sort of ridiculous straw man conservative, but Beasts of the Southern Wild never really explores the consequences of the decision to remain in the levy, or the moral authority of Hushpuppy’s father. It asks us to accept, at face value, that the decision to stay in the Bayou is “the right thing to do”, a valiant stand against some sort of colonial intrusion. We never really spend too much time with anybody outside “the bathtub.”
When doctors and officials show up, we only see snippets of them – Zeitlin goes out of the way to conceal their faces. It’s a valid artistic choice, presenting the world as seen by Hushpuppy, but the movie itself never questions that interpretation. It seems afraid to really explore the status quoit sets up, instead playing to some romantic fantasy about a community holding together against all odds. Again, I can see the appeal of that narrative shortcut, but it raises a whole host of troubling questions that Zeitlin is never too bothered to explore.
It’s a shame, because Beasts of the Southern Wild is a technically impressive film. It’s visually engaging, and anchored in two fantastic lead performances. However, it remains – unlike the water flooding the Bayou – too shallow to really make much of an impression.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Academy Award, Bathtub, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin, coming of age, Dwight Henry, film, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Hushpuppy, Ice cap, Louisiana, Movie, New Orleans, non-review review, Quvenzhané Wallis, review, Screen Actors Guild Award, Wallis, Zeitlin