‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Review
The first credit after the final scene of 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' the one that typically belongs in a movie to its director, reads "A Film by Court 13," an "Independent Filmmaking Army" of artists co-founded by 'Beasts' director Benh Zeitlin (his credit comes next). It's a surprising choice, but one that makes sense in light of the film's message of brotherhood and collectivism, as well as its setting, an isolated community on the Southern edge of the Louisiana bayous called "The Bathtub."
An early montage establishes The Bathtub as a land of utopian bohemia -- everyone lives, works, and parties together in a sort of glorified shantytown recycled and repurposed from other people's junk. The rest of the film is a testament to the spirit that binds people together in the face of adversity, whether that adversity is drastic environmental upheaval or skeptics who tell your Independent Filmmaking Army that you can't produce a dynamic, inventive feature.
Said drastic environmental upheaval is seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who loves her idyllic farm life with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Life is good in The Bathtub, but, as Hushpuppy's Terrence Malick-inspired-magical-realism narration tells us, the fabric of the universe is about to come undone. In rapid succession, Wink disappears, then returns, woozy and confused, wearing a hospital gown. Then a brutal storm sweeps through the area, swamping The Bathtub and scattering all but its most determined residents. Government agents arrive and try to take the few stragglers to safety. An entire way of life -- and, perhaps, an entire way of filmmaking -- seems to be under attack by outside forces, be they restrictive laws, natural disasters, or mythical creatures called aurochs, giant warthogs on a barbarian cosplay kick, that have been unleashed from their icy tombs by global warming and are headed straight for Hushpuppy's home.
When he's not celebrating the ethos that drives his creative decisions, Zeitlin crafts an impressive piece of subjective storytelling, examining the strange and beautiful world of The Bathtub solely from Hushpuppy's perspective. It's beautiful the way her innocent eyes transmute what might be a hurricane into a Biblical flood, or what could be a great oil spill (BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded on the first day of 'Beasts'' principal photography) into a mysterious plague. Cinematographer Ben Richardson, who won an award at the Sundance Film Festival for his work on the film, keeps his loose, handheld camera close to the ground to better capture a kid's eye view. And Wallis' performance, full of genuine wonder and defiance, must be one of the greatest ever given by a child in the history of cinema. The fact that Wallis is completely untrained is astonishing -- and a particular credit to Zeitlin, who turned this little girl into a remarkably expressive actor.
Wallis is unforgettable as Hushpuppy; other elements of 'Beasts,' sadly, are a lot less memorable. Perhaps because Zeitlin seems to value the mass above the individual, no one else in the film, except perhaps Hushpuppy's father, truly emerges from the Bathtub masses. Granted, we are seeing these people through Hushpuppy's eyes, but Hushpuppy's eyes don't seem to see these people as much of anything. And for a movie that's trying to explain why communities like The Bathtub need to be celebrated, protected, and memorialized after they're gone, that's a problem.
Even more troubling: for all its technical virtuosity, The Bathtub never quite feels real, magically or otherwise. The production design is impressive, but not all that convincing, even as something that exists, at least in part, inside the mind of a child. Contrary to the film's title, this is a carefully controlled and intensely art directed experience. The film closes with some remarkable imagery -- remarkable for any film, much less one produced on a shoestring like 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' -- and a stab for our heartstrings that it doesn't completely earn.
Still, if individual beats occasionally ring false, there isn't a single untrue moment in Wallis' performance, and there's no denying that Zeitlin -- and the rest of Court 13 -- are emerging artists of serious talent. Give them credit: they've made something unique. And they did it together.
‘Beasts of the Southern Wild' opens in select theaters on June 27.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’