Somewhere under the multiple layers of aesthetic beauty that shimmer away on the surface of Beasts of the Southern Wild are a number of very, very familiar stories; a father struggles to find the momentum to raise his rebellious daughter, a community consistently on the brink of collapse struggles to maintain uniformity, a child whose innocence is under constant threat wrestles with life’s infinite and perplexing contradictions.
If any of the above scenarios are well known to you and the medium through which they are familiar is a movie set in the American South featuring a soundtrack of orchestral folk, a cast of mostly young non-professional actors and also includes the essential contribution of a voice over to constantly remind you to follow the story, then you might as well stop reading, as the film in question and the remainder of this review will hold very few novelties.
If on the other hand this is not the case, or you are merely not bothered but, in fact, empowered by clichés and the general fact of cinema and indeed fiction, perpetually repeating itself then read on.
Set in an area located in the Mississippi Delta known as The Bathtub, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the debut feature by Writer, Director and musical composer Benh Zeitlin (which is based on the stage play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar) that picked up the prestigious Caméra d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has been showered with a waves of critical appraisal ever since.
In The Bathtub a six-year-old girl called Hushpuppy (played by newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) are doing their best to survive and enjoy life in a rundown neighborhood which is cut off from civilization by a levee and which is about to witness a gargantuan storm that could sink the entire community. But this post-Hurricane Katrina scenario is not played out with the kind of realism that one might expect. For it is not only a colossal storm that threatens to rip apart The Bathtub, but also a hoard of prehistoric beasts called Aurochs which have been unleashed from melting ice caps. Hushpuppy, being the ‘gifted’ child that she is, of course, knows that they are coming. She also has the ability to decipher the speech of animals, speaks to her dead mother, occasionally drinks booze and hangs out with prostitutes.
In a sense the film is a magic-realist version of George Washington, The Spirit of the Beehive, The Road, Where the Wild Things Are and a number of other movies I care not enough to name. After all, most of these points of reference seem to be more accomplished then Beasts of the Southern Wild itself. In hindsight the film is at it’s best when it’s not trying too hard and when it’s not attempting to be the post apocalyptic fable it wishes it was. A scene in which Hushpuppy attempts to save her ailing father by placing a jar of medicine in a tree is touching and the general use of light and colour as orchestrated by Director of Photography Ben Richardson is striking. He never uses too much contrast or heavy saturated tones, a move which seems to generate a visual sensitivity and a lightness of colour that in a sense suggests realism, but also the irrevocable hint that we are staring at a dream.
Putting its resplendent and hallucinogenic texture aside, the other noteworthy attribute of Beasts of the Southern Wild is Quvenzhane’s Wallis’s courageous performance as Hushpuppy. Not only does the actress have a great presence on screen [quite often repelling the energy of the adult actors as if she was one of them) but there are lines that Wallis delivers with such honesty and conviction that we forget for a moment how corny they really are [such as when flood waters rush over The Bathtub and she says: 'For the animals that didn't have a daddy to put them in a boat the end of the world already happened' or 'The whole Universe depends on everything fitting together just right'].
Of all the components and personnel that make Beasts of The Southern Wild the film that it is, ultimately it is Zeitlin who fulfils the least of his potential. It’s not that his film does not make partially compelling viewing, and it is not that it isn’t a tad heart rendering at points. It’s just that on reflection there is little, in terms of meaning, to sink one’s teeth into and in the end one feels as if one has just experienced the cinematic equivalent of a fortune cookie; sweetness on the outside but formlessness and emptiness within, plus the insult of a well meaning though slightly condescending and unimaginative message at the core.