Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar (Play: Lucy Alibar)
Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality
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Inexorably altered by the devasting destruction of Hurricane Katrina, life in southern Louisiana has been a challenge for residents. Beasts of the Southern Wild examines the sense of community and perseverance among a group of locals in a fictional region called The Bathtub.
Located just outside the protection of Louisiana’s levee system, an impoverished community bands together to survive after a storm floods their homes and its environs. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a spunky six-year-old girl living in the midst of squalor as the proud child of a headstrong, beligerent father who is more concerned with his own well-being than that of his child. With her father disappearing for long periods of time, Hushpuppy must use her wits to survive. In spite of her diminutive nature, she has been tasked with various adult activities to help the two of them live, her in a carefully-balanced beaten-up mobile home, and her father in a separate patched and ramshackle home.
They live a quiet life with their community to protect them, but being stuck in a region far removed from the safety of the city of New Orleans, the denizens struggle with improper hygiene, unsanitary living conditions and a haphazard, unsanctioned school system. Hushpuppy has known little else in her life besides her father and their troubled township. Her mother departed early in life, whether by choice or through death the film doesn’t precisely answer.
Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut is a limited film. Saddled by a script with very stringent criteria, the narrative is given little room to grow or breathe. Questions of propriety and safety are subsumed by an attempt to tell a story of strength, community and self-sufficiency. Zeitlin’s direction is largely generic, hewing closely to formulae developed for independent cinema over several decades. A few interesting thematic choices don’t make up for a constrained script.
The film is told both realistically and metaphorically, the two concepts clashing more frequently than supporting each other. The auroch element feels forced, creating a disharmony with the rest of the film. When you focus so heavily on depicting an honest, breathing community, pushing in fantastical symbolism muddies the effort. Had it remained figurative as it had through much of the film, it might have felt more organic; however, unlike the film and story of Where the Wild Things Are, bridging the gap between realism and fantasy in a way that suggests both are real, not imagined, destroys much of the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief.
One of the biggest debates about a movie like this is at what point does a child, only six years of age, have the ability to deliver more than a rehearsed, forced performance. Actors only a few years older than Wallis have given some rather clever performances, but whether they had the life experience or rationality to drive their performances isn’t known. Watching Wallis through most of the film, I can find no scene where I felt she was acting. Every moment she’s on screen seems like the perfect take out of several with Zeitlin guiding every element of it. Creating an emotional connection between character and audience is a challenging task and while a script can work its magic over time, even the strongest screenplay (which this is not) will struggle under the weight of an inexperienced actor. Wallis may be energetic, charming and likable both on and off-screen, but I wouldn’t call this particular performance more than adequate.
As her father, Dwight Henry is a far more interesting revelation. Plucked from relative obscurity running a small eatery, Henry shows a laudatory strength of commitment. Although the role vascillates between abusive and loving, Henry convinces the audience of all of his character’s flaws and his self-sufficiency is commendable, but questionable. Leaving his young child alone for lengths of time, even if it’s to treat a disease he doesn’t want his daughter to know about, is a deplorable decision. With no mother to support her, he essentially forces her to depend only on herself and not those around her. The script seems to paint him as a weary parent unable to cope with the requirements of raising a child alone and escapes whenever he can. That he is seldom punished for those decisions by the filmmakers within the framework of the narrative is a bit disappointing.
Beasts of the Soutern Wild has a number of problems and struggles through its length to define itself as more than just a simple fantasy story about self-reliance and independence in the face of adversity. However, the unintended message the film puts forth is that even when those who wish to look out for your safety or health, defiance is a more commendable and noble action. Conveying that sense of self to a child can have long-ranging and dire consequences. Thankfully, the film won’t very easily appeal to children, removing some of the more hazardou teachings that could be conveyed. If we take the film solely as the makers intend, it can be easily defined as a nice, capable and satisfactory experience, but not one of limitless value or deserving of unequivocal praise.
February 28, 2013