Beasts of the Southern Wild

August 7, 2012

If you’re going to make a film that’s baldly poetic, you’d better be damn sure you know what you’re doing.  It can seem unfair to castigate anyone who drops all cynical pretenses to “let it all hang out”, as it were, but there’s a serious danger of inducing the kind of eye-rolling in the audience that can kill a picture dead in no time at all.  It’s why there’s a cliché about coffee house singer/songwriter types.  There are elements of the song and the performance – just the right lyric or turn of phrase, a melody, the sound and inflections of the vocal delivery – that must work together to push through the cynicism or, perhaps more correctly, the ‘bullshit detectors’ of the audience to tap into that zone of pure emotion for which the artist is striving.  Most, as anyone who has ever been to an open mic night can attest, fail miserably.  Really, though, I’m overstating it.  “Cynicism” isn’t solely the problem, or at least it isn’t the easy answer as to why this sort of work fails.  There are basic realities we live in – political, cultural, and social, etc – that are ingrained in us, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Arguably great art should take all of these into consideration and still reach that emotional place, but some can pull it off without all of that. 

Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut Beasts of the Southern Wild, which he also wrote along with Lucy Alibar, certainly swings for the fences in the ‘poetic cinema’ arena.  Told through the eyes of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), it depicts a small, impoverished community in the Louisiana bayou called The Bathtub, cut off from civilization by a levee, and forever under threat from another Katrina-like environmental disaster.  Hushpuppy lives in a ramshackle trailer-cum-treehouse next to her father Wink (Dwight Henry), who rings a bell for feed time after throwing a fresh chicken onto a grill.  Her mother having left some time ago, Hushpuppy is half-neglected by Wink, but when he does pay attention he tries to impart some knowledge about how to survive and generally be masculine.  She attends a sort-of ad hoc school with the other children of The Bathtub, where it seems science has been foregone in favour of ancient myths about cavemen and giant beasts called aurochs.  When a giant storm threatens, many of the residents flee, but Wink and a small band of others are determined to see it out and, when the floods come, they refuse to be evacuated by the authorities.

All of this is narrated by Hushpuppy in the kind of childlike-but-incredibly-flowery poetry that is something of a staple of try-hard indies.  It is reminiscent of Linda Manz’s narration in Malick’s Days of Heaven, full of phonetic missteps and ‘rural’ turns of phrase.  The difference is that in Days, there was a mix of trying to understand the love triangle fiasco and the disinterested musings of a child.  Where it got the balance just right, Beasts oversteps on a number of occasions, putting itself too close to stating themes too early.  It’s jarringly cliché, as many things in the first half hour of this film are, including the drunken father and his at turns negligent and abusive relationship with his daughter.  Less a paradise of self-sustainability than a haven for alcoholic “po’ folk”, The Bathtub dangerously veers on occasion between a representation of the “noble savage” and a harsh representation of laziness.  Even by using the word “levee”, the film throws up a political reality that tempts us to look at this as a socio-political parable (is The Bathtub meant to be the Ninth Ward?), in which case it’s an extremely problematic paean to misguided libertarian ideals.  I’m not sure that’s what was intended, but it hangs over the film, along with all the other clichés that abound.

The most cloying stylistic cliché would have to be the use of the grainy handheld shooting style.  It’s about the most overused style in all of American Independent film, and instead of adding an air of immediacy, it often feels like a pathetic stab at “documentary” authenticity. Add to that the initial, queasily affected bits of Hushpuppy playing with animals and the use of triumphant music that can sound like a localized instrumental version of Arcade Fire, and there is an awful lot to suggest that this really is no better than any other tripe that Sundance praises.  I’ll admit, I was sinking in my seat after that first cut to the aurochs.

All that said, there are three things really working for the film, and they’re working in a very big way.  The first two are the performances of Henry and Wallis.  The latter will get all the plaudits, and deservingly so, for her performance really is charming and devastating and as fierce-willed and strong as everyone says.  I’d like to highlight Henry though, apparently just a local baker the film crew liked.  For as much as he’s saddled with that Louisiana speech, I imagine he might genuinely speak like that, and though his character is written somewhat inconsistently (in fairness, this is hardly a straightforward narrative to allow for a smooth arc), he manages to sell both sides of the man – the angry drunk who doesn’t know what to do, and the stern father who really loves his daughter.

The third thing that really works is the design, helped in no small part by the locations.  It’s a makeshift world, and it elevates the initial looks at rusty metal parts surrounded by overgrown foliage to something altogether extraordinary.  The truck bed turned into a boat, or the submerged houses with pickets adoring the roofs feel like a more realistic but bizarrely surreal version of the aesthetic of the Where the Wild Things Are film, but even more impressive.  The design of this film would be special on a big budget, so on the small amount of money they had to make this, it’s damn near miraculous.  It isn’t often you’ll find a marriage of design and natural settings as good as this.

It’s hard to tell exactly when this film started working for me, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was very late in the game, when Hushpuppy visits a dockside restaurant.  It’s a beautiful and affecting sequence, and it so quietly and perfectly does what it does that it pushes the next two (and final) sequences of the film.  When the magic realism fully comes to the fore (though I imagine you could take it as metaphor but it doesn’t really matter), I was almost blown away.  Wallis’ performance forces its way through the dubious aspects, and though it’s the simplicity of the moment (making a stand/finding that strength/telling the threatening forces “no”) that ultimately drives the emotional resonance, it’s the look and the framing and lighting and the performance that lets it work.  It never quite gets past some of its problems (this film still feels insanely libertarian, when so much pain could have been prevented by taking advantage of the medical services civilization offered), but those final few scenes are just enough to push it into “pretty good” territory.  I don’t think it truly earned the emotional reaction I had at that late moment -it is still too cliché a film to totally overwhelm the way it so desperately wanted – but I can’t deny it happened either.

-M

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One Response to “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

  1. Tony Dagnall Says:

    I got it from Redbox after seeing it win Uncut’s movie of the year, and I wasn’t disappointed, although as movie night with the missus fodder it didn’t quite go over (she gets very dizzy with handheld stuff, and as you pointed out this is knee-deep in it). Having said that it took an age to warm up for me but I was there by the final scenes, pretty much as you’d said. The final face-off scene will live with me for a good while.


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