Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – Half-Baked, Muddled & Sanctimonious Deep South Fantasy…

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A joke: Today, a bomb went off in central Ipswich, England [delete and apply any shitty town/district/neighbourhood of your choice], causing millions of pounds worth of structural improvements.

I’ll come back to that joke in a minute.  Christmas is over and I’m not feeling charitable, and as much as I admire the independent, amateur, can-do ethos behind Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, I can’t pretend I appreciated it as much as many celebrated critics seemed to.

The film tells the story of a little girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in squalor with her ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in a ramshackle pre-post-apocalyptic community known as the Bathtub, separated from the modern world by a levee.

A storm is coming, and Hushpuppy’s teacher tells her pupils about giant, prehistoric pigs called Aurochs, which will be released from the melting polar icecaps and head on South to munch on the weak and the dispossessed.

Once the storm hits, the residents of the Bathtub are left to fend for themselves against the high water mark, and Wink, a slovenly drunken father with an ill-conceived line in tough love, is determined to equip his daughter with the skills to survive the onrushing apocalypse.

The film opens with some glorious scenes of the Bathtub’s colourful community – they race babies, drink shitloads of hooch, chow down on big baskets of freshly caught seafood, and let their kids run around waving fireworks – but rapidly descends into a poorly organized series of vignettes.  The people of the Bathtub seem to liken themselves to modern day cave men, and when things get tough, cavemen don’t act like pussies.

A film about childhood doesn’t necessarily need to have much of a plot – Spike Jonze’s wonderful adaptation of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are had virtually no plot at all, but was a beautifully melancholy evocation of what it’s like to be a kid.

Beasts of the Southern Wild suffers because not only does it have no plot, it also lacks a central coherent theme, or even an organized thought to link it together.  For all its deliberate and lovingly thrown together scenes of squalor, it doesn’t have one moment that feels genuinely chaotic or free-spirited, despite the efforts of its amateur actors and actresses.

Rather, it feels like a tapestry of much better films by much better directors, and some of those films weren’t exactly classics in the first place.  Ben Richardson’s mostly handheld 16mm camerawork evokes Malick’s The Tree of Life; the juxtaposition of fantasy creatures with a little girl’s experience of real-life horrors suggests Guillermo del Toro’s masterful Pan’s Labyrinth; and Wink’s decision to reject regular society and protect his offspring from the greedy, destructive modern world reminded me of Peter Weir’s adaptation of The Mosquito Coast.

Before I saw the film, I thought it was supposed to be about Hurricane Katrina, and the devastation wrought on the poor communities of New Orleans.  While the natural disaster that besets the Bathtub is never named, it is clearly what the film is about, although I felt it did injustice to the impoverished people left so appallingly high and dry (figuratively, of course) by the Bush administration’s shockingly ham-fisted handling of the crisis.

The people of the Bathtub aren’t living like scrapyard dogs because of grinding poverty or social ills like in real life – they are living like that, in junk filled shacks, because they choose to.  And, as the film would have us believe, that makes them morally and spiritually superior to all the rest of us living in the real world.  The caveman theme recurs heavy-handedly through the film, as if regressing to grim cro-magnon survival is something to aspire to, and surely the only way to get through the upcoming man-made ecological apocalypse.

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The only glimpse of the “real world” afforded in the film’s first hour is of refineries across the top of the levee.  “Ain’t it ugly?” Wink asks his daughter, from his boat made from a truck bed.

Later, as the Hurricane hits hard, the Bathtub is flooded, the denizens realize their fresh water is rendered undrinkable by salt water, and the salt water will kill the vegetation and their animals.  Then the “real” world and its foot-soldiers insult the Bathtub’s residents by daring to rescue them.

After a misguidedly Ealing-esque comic jaunt where Wink and his friends blow up the levee to drain the water, using an alligator skin stuffed with explosives, they are left to survey the damage caused by the hurricane and flood.

Like the joke at the beginning, the disaster has caused several dollar’s worth of improvements to their sweat-stained, piss-soaked existence.

Later, Wink is spotted brawling with medical staff who have the audacity to try saving his life.  After a truncated hospital break out that recalls One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Wink demands of his friends, Get me home.

I don’t know what the message is supposed to be.  The characters in Beasts of the Southern Wild aren’t noble savages, they’re asshole savages.

I can’t remember a film that seems so completely off-kilter and sanctimonious, and patronizing in the extreme.  The director and his screenwriters are all over the place, and even a sub-plot involving Hushpuppy’s unlikely swim across the sea to find her missing mother (accompanied by some friends I couldn’t really remember seeing before) seemed like a spin on Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence.

In a strange, fairy-lit brothel, she finds a woman who may or may not be her mother, but they don’t have the courage to make her a prostitute – she’s the head chef, swigging beers and deep frying alligator.

The film’s saving grace is the performance by it’s five year old star, Quvenzhane Wallis.  She is fierce, vulnerable, loving, fearless and needy, and it is surely a star making role for her.  She’s a little kid, and she offers the most believable  and grown up performance in the film, putting her adult co-actors to shame.  Notch it up alongside Tatum O’Neale in Paper Moon and Natalie Portman in Leon – she’s one to watch out for.

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Hushpuppy is the only well written character here, a brave little girl with an indestructible spirit.  She believes she can fix the world, and she sees the universe as something she can influence, with her in the center of it – although she is rather uncertain at times of how to behave, and is unaware of how frail and tiny she is in comparison to the cosmos.

In one of the film’s most beguiling moments, she hides in a cardboard box from a fire, clearly thinking if she can’t see the blaze, then she’s safe.  As the fire grows out of control, she consoles herself drawing cave painting-like images on the inside of the box – “In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” – unaware of her anonymity in the world, and of the inpermanance of her hiding place and her physical being.

The relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink eventually becomes rather enchanting and moving – unfortunately, just as the giant pigs roll up.  The confrontation between the brave little girl and the monsters is mis-timed and pointlessly anti-climactic.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a messy, disorganized, poorly-thought out picture, luckily illuminated by a prodigious performance by its child star.  A lot of people will love it, but I found its messages muddled and borderline offensive, and the odd choice of voicing ecological concerns through the imagination of a five year old girl is teeth-grindingly patronizing.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 06/01/2013, in Adventure, B, Drama, Entertainment, Fantasy, Film, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Just whoa. Beware to filmmakers…lol. Very well thought out review though. Cheers.

    • Well, I say it like I see it & I so desperately wanted to enjoy this one…thanks very much for the read & comment.

      • You know what? It’s really tough making a movie, so many things can get lost. Sometimes the director loses focus on stuff outside the story (have alot of actor friends). But reviewers can definitely teach viewers to recognize better movies so they’re not settling so much for the ‘fast food,’ aka spectacle alone…but I feel if filmmakers read reviews it can teach them what to be cautious of too. So cheers to you friend. All the best! xo

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