Beasts of the Southern Wild
One of my most frequent complaints about movies is their portrayal of children. Kids in movies almost always exist to be either cute and idealized (for viewing by adults) or absurdly empowered (for viewing by other kids). Films that show juvenile characters in a psychologically realistic light are few and far between.
I think the greatest strength of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin, is that it seems to capture the ways that a very exceptional child, given a very exceptional experience, might see the world. Or at least, that’s one interpretation. This is one of those movies where audiences members will argue afterwards about what they actually saw, whether it is literal or metaphor, or perhaps a fantasy or hallucination, before even getting to what any of it means.
The movie is narrated by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a young African American girl who lives with her ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry) in The Bathtub, an area in the Louisiana bayou. The members of the poor community they belong to have apparently chosen self-exile from society. They seem to be living in racial harmony and are mostly happy, despite the poverty. Hushpuppy believes that the world is coming to end, caused by global warming, and a storm (which may or may not be Hurricane Katrina) is brewing, meaning that the community must survive both the elements and evade the police, who are trying to enforce a mandatory evacuation of the area.
All of this takes place amongst the backdrop of the stories Hushpuppy has been told, and the ones that she may be making up herself. Like the film itself, these stories tend to explain via metaphor but avoid the literal. We are told of how our protagonist was conceived, but not where her absent mother is, or why she left (or was left behind). There is also a significant role to be played by wild boars, which as far as I know are not native to Louisiana.
Literal minded viewers will find the picture madding, as clear answers are in short supply. Most critics have raved about the film, which won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Though I enjoyed it, I found that the movie was not quite as emotionally compelling as others have experienced. Perhaps this is because I couldn’t be as enthusiastic about the artificial community as Zeitlin wanted me to be. Even if these people are well meaning, is this really the best environment for a young child?
At times the mystery about what level of reality we are observing is interesting, but on other occasions the picture is too oblique for its own good. The obvious picture to compare Beasts to is Carlos Saura‘s 1976 Spanish masterpiece Cria cuervos, which is also about a motherless child in a changing, confusing world. Zeitlin’s work may be said to be ambitious, but not as moving (or as well photographed, considering the abundance of shaky cam). Saura’s film also did not have to resort to giant boars to add an aura of mystery.
I do join many of the reviewers in praising Wallis’s performance, which manages to be completely naturalistic whilst enacting very unnatural situations. It is said that all child actors essentially play themselves. If that is true, Wallis is going to one day take over the world, given the strength she exudes in this role.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a challenging and ambitious film, that even despite its thematic similarities to Cria cuervos is more than anything original. There are a lot of art-house films that are predictable and formulaic. This one is different. If you want to see something new and strange, this is your movie.
3.0 out of 4