No film yet shown at Movie Klub frustrated me as much as Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. There are moments in this film that will stick with me for a long, long time, and other moments that will leave a foul taste in my mouth for just as long. It’s a film which contains some beautiful visuals and some ugly ideas. It contains one of the best acting performances I saw last year, and one of the worst. Having had a few days to think about it afterward, I still can’t decide if I liked it or not, although there is no question that I will eagerly await Zeitlin’s next effort.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, all of 5 years old during filming) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in an impoverished community called The Bathtub. It’s implied, by the characters’ accents and love of a good party, that The Bathtub is in the vicinity of New Orleans. But the only specifics of location that are ever spelled out are the existence of “The Levee” a few miles north of The Bathtub, and the huge body of water – again, implied to be the Gulf of Mexico but never named – to the south. Should a big enough storm come along, The Bathtub will fill with water just as quickly as its namesake.
Sure enough, a storm does come, and Hushpuppy and Wink are left to fend for themselves along with the other residents of The Bathtub. The natural impulse is to compare this plot to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, but you ought to resist that impulse; the movie has very little to do with the real world. For one thing, The Bathtub tends to treat The Levee as an act of hostility, as a sort of Berlin Wall meant to keep them away from the “dry world”;
there’s no levee in New Orleans which creates the same hostility in its surrounding islands.* It’s much more reasonable to treat The Bathtub as a sort of fairy-tale kingdom, which is easy to do since almost everything is presented to us through Hushpuppy’s eyes.
Seen as a fairy tale, the first 45 minutes or so of Beasts of the Southern Wild is superb. Zeitlin has an eye unlike few directors working today, uncorking a half-dozen dazzling shots before the title card even appears onscreen. This is a film which absolutely must be seen in Blu-Ray, so that the colors pop to the fullest and the music (by Zeitlin and Dan Romer) fills the room as much as possible. I found this film superior visually to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which is impressive when you consider that Lee had at least fifty times the budget that Zeitlin did.
But, after the storm strikes, the residents of the Bathtub make so many bizarre decisions that it was difficult for me to take the second half of this movie seriously. Blowing up The Levee might have made sense, except the movie doesn’t put enough work into establishing the dry world’s relationship to the Bathtub and the Levee as an antagonistic symbol. Worse is the inexplicable hostility toward the people who want to evacuate the Bathtub into shelters, which are treated as soul-crushing prisons.
The film treats as a triumph that the Bathtub would rather see the food supply vanish and go without clean water than spend a single day in a shelter. What sense does that make? Salt water has filled the Bathtub and ruined their food supply; even the bland cafeteria food at a shelter would be better than that. I’m from Kansas: I know first-hand that even the proudest and most stubborn country folks see no shame in asking for help when a tornado knocks down their houses. To me, the behavior of the adult residents of the Bathtub doesn’t seem brave, it simply seems foolish, and it makes the movie feel manipulative of my emotions.
Much of the success of this film can be credited to Wallis, who is a revelation. Small children are rarely bad actors, since they lack the self-awareness that ruin so many teenagers’ acting skills. It’s not hard for Wallis to do some of the things that she does: scream, growl, flex her muscles and shout, “I’m the man!” But her reactions for some the other things she has to do – cry on command, receive verbal and physical abuse from her on-screen father, appear pensive in the face of an existential problem that would be tough for adults, deliver the difficult voiceover narration in a credible way – these are not things that should be expected of a 5-year-old actor. She’s incredible and would certainly deserve a much-buzzed-about Oscar nomination.
But Henry … I just did not like him. He has said in interviews that his experiences during Hurricane Katrina got him close to the circumstances of his character. I wonder if maybe he was too close, because his performance is inflected with too much anger, even when it doesn’t need to be. Henry is loud, angry and basically at 10 in every scene of this movie but one (more on that scene in a second); to put it simply, he shouts too much. I’ve read reviews where this movie’s defenders say that Wink feels like a failure as a father, but I did not get that from Henry’s performance at all. I didn’t get anything from him but rage, which wouldn’t be bad, except that he gives it even in scenes where rage is not called for.
Just when this movie was about to completely lose me, it came back with a dynamite climax. It’s the only scene in the movie where I liked Henry, the one where Wallis really goes from “great” to “Oscar-worthy,” the one where tears flowed freely from more than a few Movie Klubbers. Beasts of the Southern Wild goes out on a good note, and provides enough genuine power in that scene that I would recommend this movie to anyone, even if I had my reservations about it.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*After I posted this review, I was informed that there is one island whose story is similar to that of the Bathtub. I have to say, if even a fraction of this story had found its way into the movie’s script, I would have liked the movie much more than I did.