Beasts of the Southern Wild (United States, 2012)

June 26, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Beasts of the Southern Wild Poster

Contained within Beasts of the Southern Wild are moments of fragile, understated magic that emphasize the relationship that exists even between the most neglectful, irresponsible fathers and their daughters. The problem with Beasts of the Southern Wild is that, like The Tree of Life, it seeks to integrate its small, very personal story into a much larger, more ambitious tapestry. First time director Benh Zeitlin may not lack vision, but he lacks Terrence Malick's ability to pull off such a difficult task. The movie comes across as a collection of competing themes and ideas that collide more often than complement one another and never fully gel. It can be argued that Beasts of the Southern Wild is never uninteresting, but it's also never fully satisfying or successful. One is left wondering how much is intended to be concrete and how much is an allegorical fairy tale.

At its core, Beast of the Southern Wild is a two-character story. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) is a six-year old girl who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the wilds of the Gulf Coast region. They squat in ramshackle, make-shift "houses" with tin roofs and grounded boats ready to float when a storm comes and the water rises. The "Bathtub," as the below-sea level marshlands are called, are walled off from civilization by a levee. The small community of men and women inhabiting the Bathtub are left to their own devices. For children like Hushpuppy, that means running wild. For men like Wink, it means drinking. He is ill-suited to be raising a daughter on his own, but his wife has run off and he has no choice. The lesson he tries the hardest to impart to Hushpuppy is self-sufficiency and, in teaching it, he can be a harsh taskmaster.

Global changes threaten the Bathtub. In the far north, the glaciers are melting. Emerging from an icy imprisonment is a group of aurochs, giant extinct cattle that charge south across North America, heading for the Gulf Coast. There's also a Katrina-like storm brewing - one that threatens to inundate the Bathtub with salt-tainted water. Inhabitants of the endangered area prepare for the worst, ready to abandon their houses for boats. For Hushpuppy and Wink, there is an added component to this drama: Wink has contracted a fatal blood disease that is slowly killing him.

When Beasts of the Southern Wild concentrates on the flammable relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink, it's on solid ground. By presenting things from the six-year old's perspective, Zeitlin is able to portray Wink alternatively as a figure of anger/terror and a stout, indestructible protector. The realism and emotional honesty of these sequences is undeniable. When Wink, pushed by rage to violence, strikes Hushpuppy, the shock is palpable. Members of the audience gasp. When Wink disappears for several days and Hushpuppy is left to fend for herself, her faith in her father emerges. When a teacher asks if she needs a ride home after school, she demurs, saying she's waiting for her father. She believes in him. Earlier, a scene in which Hushpuppy and Wink enjoy the euphoria of a fireworks display emphasizes a playful side to their interaction.

The inclusion of the aurochs, allegorical though it may be, is a misstep - an attempt to lather on a coating of magical realism that feels forced and inappropriate. The special effects used to create them are fine (better, in fact, than one might expect from a film with such a limited budget), but they are poorly integrated into the overall story. Their purpose is nebulous and the resolution of this sub-plot is unsatisfying. Worse, they represent a distraction. The movie's occasional cutting to them interrupts the flow of the Hushpuppy/Wink story and creates expectations that are not fulfilled.

The acting is remarkable, especially when one considers that neither of the two principals had any prior experience. Young Quvenzhane Wallis gives a natural performance in a situation that might challenge a seasoned actor. She is remarkable and we never once question Hushpuppy's authenticity. Equally credible is Dwight Henry, who temporarily abandoned his day job as a baker to embark upon this challenge. His portrayal is raw and unpolished in all the right ways. For the most part, the secondary performers, who play other residents of the Bathtub, are also comfortable in front of the camera.

To this day, I have never understood why some directors see value in filming their entire movie using a shaking, hand-held camera. The intent is to create a more gritty image and to enhance intimacy. More likely, however, it is apt to promote nausea and become a distancing factor. From the opening image, it's apparent that Beasts of the Southern Wild is going to one of those movies and, by the time the end credits have arrived, it has become a serious offender. Viewers afflicted by motion sickness may be unable to sit through the entire movie. That's the price a filmmaker must pay for refusing to use a tripod.

If the purpose of a movie is to provide a glimpse into cultures most of us do not ordinarily encounter, Beasts of the Southern Wild offers such a view. Unfortunately, it is necessary to overcome the twin distractions of a constantly moving camera and a muddled screenplay to obtain that perspective. The film is interesting and original, but it's also a source of repeated frustration that mutes its accessibility and effectiveness.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (United States, 2012)

Director: Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry
Screenplay: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Cinematography: Ben Richardson
Music: Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2012-06-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1