First time feature director Benh Zeitlin’s highly praised Beasts of the Southern Wild plays more like an immersive art exhibit than it does an actual film, which is equally admirable and wholly problematic. What starts off as an enthralling and visually stunning modern fairy tale slowly descends into meandering mythology that betrays its characters, but still looks and feels unlike anything audiences will likely see this year or have ever seen before, but that still doesn’t mean it’s a successful movie overall.
On an island just off the coast of New Orleans known as The Bathtub, nine year old Emma, a.k.a. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) finds herself thrust into learning the ways of the world on her own without the help of her high strung, hard headed, aloof, and ultimately sickly father Wink Doucette (Dwight Henry). When a massive storm effectively wipes the township off the face of the map, the few citizens who stay behind have to band together in a fight for survival to stay above the floodwaters, not give into mandatory evacuations, and search for food.
The backstory of The Bathtub and its dwellers is told largely through the narration and recollection of Hushpuppy and through Zeitlin’s impeccably production designed world. For the first twenty minutes or so, Wallis and Henry carry the dramatic weight of the film and set up what should be an inventive take on the traditional father/daughter story. The fact that neither have acted before this isn’t at all apparent, as they both exude a sense of raw emotion that serves the material quite well even as the film starts to falter. While some critics have taken to task the ultimately precious presence of Wallis at the heart of the film and the largely metaphorical and allegorical dialogue she’s asked to read, it’s hard to deny that it’s a difficult role for any actress to pull off and that she does it splendidly.
Similarly, Zeitlin’s attention to detail can be quite stunning even when his script (co-written by Lucy Allbar and based on her stage play Juicy and Delicious) sinks with every act break. From our introduction to The Bathtub with its Terry Gilliam styled firmaments and pickup truck flatbed boats, it becomes apparent that the audience is in the hands of a born stylist. It’s a world equal parts fantastical and believable in the same manner as a classic fairy tale about a kingdom far, far away. But the production design, gorgeous 16mm photography, the dialogue and the performances aren’t what make the film so confounding to watch when looked at objectively.
About thirty minutes into the film it becomes wholly apparent that Zeitlin has the art behind the film more fully in focus than his characters and the story, which would be fine if the film didn’t start feeling like visiting an art gallery and bouncing around, back and forth between disconnected exhibits with little rhyme or reason. Zeitlin abandons the fantastical elements of creating a fairy tale world – where logic, reason, and explanation need not tread – and sets out to create a muddled, epic form of mythology rooted in recent American history that doesn’t work only because the film sets out to do one thing quite well before going in a completely different direction that it doesn’t set out to achieve from the start.
Setting out to create an allegorical myth means that some explanation as to the motives of these character is necessary beyond a simple nod to all of them being resilient, obstinate survivors. There has to be a moral to the story that’s nowhere in site and that’s never reconciled. As a result, later sequences where Hushpuppy has to face the notion that she might lose her father forever aren’t as effective because Zeitlin expends so much energy on trying to sound poetic and trying to build up this world that he forgets to include anything more than the most basic of characters. There’s never any more emotional investment in the material beyond not wanting to see Hushpuppy get hurt in any way, but without a clearer demarcation point for these characters it only works on the most primal of levels and doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Furthermore, the film’s highly touted subplot involving awakened mythical beasts known as Aurochs has a fairly obvious resolution straight out of a screenwriting 101 class.
Maybe that last statement sound somewhat flippant, but such is the frustration of objectively thinking about the film. To have such basic payoffs in a film this complex, challenging, and avant garde feels like a cheat. Maybe the hype around the film surrounds the fact that when all the elements come together that it really does take on the appearance of being a new and energizing form of storytelling; a jambalaya, if you will, evocative of the setting of the tale. But all it really ends up being is a blunted attempt at bringing art to the masses. Like I said, it’s all admirable in terms of intent and technical prowess, but there’s an empty space around the film’s heart.
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Top image: A scene from Beats of the Southern Wild. Courtesy eOne Films.