Beasts of the Southern Wild was the hit of Sundance 2012, and so it was with great anticipation that I attended a press screening of it a few months back. I'd heard it compared to the Southern Gothic abstractions of pre-sellout David Gordon Green, or even the dreamy lyricism of Terrence Malick. Perhaps my expectations were too high, however, because Beasts did not connect with me at all.
I'll say this for the film: it's definitely unique; certainly visionary. Director Benh Zeitlin's debut is set in a magic-realist environment somewhere between post-Katrina New Orleans and Where the Wild Things Are, and it features a memorable central character in Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl trying to survive some sort of melting icecaps apocalypse in a town called Bathtub, with her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry).
But while Beasts succeeds at immersing the audience in a curious, evocative American world--a kind of mishmash between the rundown Americana of Green's George Washington, the river adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and (cringe) Kevin Costner's Water World--the film fails to tie its abundance of motifs, allusions, and themes together in a coherent, compelling story.
There are too many ideas going on in this film, and most of them feel dropped in haphazardly. There are notions of global warming hinted at, references to levees and the race/class frictions churned up by Katrina, jabs at bureaucracy and welfare, and all manner of unintelligible voiceover philosophizing (again, hat tip Malick and D.G. Green) like “When all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.” Then there are the “we're all just beasts!” themes that riff on Darwin and make commentary on the survival instincts which bind man and animal. Does any of it make sense? Is it meant to? Probably not.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the film's sense of reality is intentionally ambiguous: We know the narrative is in some sense from Hushpuppy's point of view, but it's unclear whether some or all of it is in her imagination. Which may very well be the point. But regardless, it comes across more as a frustrating mess than a "just enjoy the ride" impressionistic tone poem (which I think it aspires to be).
I loved the world of this film, and the photography and (sometimes) the music. The first ten minutes or so are really superb. And I'll be darned if Hushpuppy isn't the most adorably precocious, pint-sized heroine since Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine.
But as the film goes on it feels more and more contrived, with emotional highs and lows that the film doesn't earn and audiences shouldn't be expected to be moved by. In the end, the film's utopian, dream-like celebration of Southern culture and a sort of "it takes a village" communitarianism rings somewhat false. Sure, it may be Zeitlin's goal to offer audiences a hopeful, idealistic vision in the midset of cynical times; but hopeful visions only work if they feel authentic. In the case of Beasts, I agree with Slate critic Dana Stevens that "Zeitlin’s adoring gaze on the Bathtubbers’ chaotic-yet-joyous way of life smacks of anthropological voyeurism: Rousseau’s 'noble savage' nonsense all over again, but with crawdads and zydeco."
Fans of the film may disagree and say I'm reading too much into Beasts--that it's a film not to be understood but to be experienced. And indeed, I suspect that Zeitlin had an "experience" film in mind here. But I've seen (and loved) far more abstract "experience" films about childhood (George Washington, Paranoid Park, Ratcatcher, to name a few) than this, and they worked for me. I think that's because the most successful "experience" films have as much restraint as they have experimental vision. They don't try to overstuff the film with ideas, but rather focus on perfecting the tone and letting beautiful sequences and aesthetic brushstrokes lead the way in the creation of a mood.
The problem with Beasts is that it raises too many distracting questions in the viewer's mind to allow them to be fully present in the experience. The aesthetics are great but not great enough to pull us out of our cognitive impulses to understand what is happening and why. And ultimately, the world is too foreign and whimsical to relate to anyway. Unless you surved Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward by living in a treehouse trailer. But even then I bet Beasts feels forced.