Indie Snapshot: Beasts of the Southern Wild

by Ethan Alter June 27, 2012 12:55 pm
Indie Snapshot: <i>Beasts of the Southern Wild</i>

By far the most buzzed-about movie at this year's Sundance Film Festival (and one of the first to get snapped up for distribution), Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild is an altogether striking debut feature. Filmed on location in the bayous of Southern Louisiana, the film offers a "through a child's eyes" portrait of an impoverished rural community that's tinged with fantasy yet still firmly rooted in a compelling reality.

The child in question is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, who -- like much of the film's cast -- had no prior acting experience), a six-year-old resident of what she and her neighbors colloquially call "The Bathtub," an isolated smattering of dilapidated homes located deep in Bayou Country. With her mother present in spirit but long since vanished in person, Hushpuppy is watched over by her attentive father, Wink (Dwight Henry), whose health unfortunately isn't as strong as his spirit. The duo's quiet life is upset by the arrival of an enormous storm (although the word "Katrina" is never uttered, the reference point is clear) that floods the Bathtub, forcing its citizens to set sail upon whatever they have at hand that will float.

Eventually they find civilization -- or, to be more precise -- civilization finds them and they're forcibly escorted to an emergency camp, where Wink's condition worsens. Unwilling to just watch him die, his daughter stages a jailbreak and, along with a group of other children, returns to the water, this time in an attempt to find her mother and maybe the answer to keeping her world from falling apart. Throughout her adventures, Hushpuppy's mind is filled with visions of a group of mythical creatures slowly, but surely making their way from whatever fantastical land they inhabit to her realm and who knows what devastation these beasts will cause when they arrive...

While the Louisiana setting is new, the tone and style of Beasts owes a debt to such past films as Spirit of the Beehive, Days of Heaven and, most recently, David Gordon Green's George Washington, with which it shares a Southern backdrop as well as the depiction of a small, predominantly African-American community confronting great tragedy. But while Zeitlin has clearly absorbed some of these influences, he avoids simply regurgitating them, producing a movie that explores its own distinct physical and emotional terrain. Keeping the camera at Hushpuppy's height and relaying the scenes she observes to the audience in a slightly fractured manner, the director captures the racing mind of a child confronted with a situation she can't fully comprehend. And while Beasts may sometimes feel like a disjointed jumble of sounds and images, one always senses a guiding hand behind the studied chaos, which keeps the movie from descending into incoherence.

As much as I admire the skill and care with which Beasts was made, I have to admit to not finding the film especially moving. For whatever reason, I experienced the movie at a distance, responding more to its technique than the emotional thrust of the story. (Unlike say, Days of Heaven or The Tree of Life, two child-centric stories where I was equally caught up in the vivid imagery and the non-traditional narrative.) Perhaps the disconnect lies in the relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink, which never feels as fully realized as Zeitlin would like it to be. That can be the danger in asking untested performers to carry your movie; both Henry and, in particular, Wallis have strong individual screen presences, but they don't entirely connect as father and daughter. And, for me at least, that sapped the movie's big climactic moment -- when fantasy and reality finally meet -- of much of its power. But that doesn't make Beasts a failure by any stretch of the imagination. With this movie, Zeitlin establishes a promising directorial voice and vision that will likely resonate with others in a way it didn't entirely with me. He's also accomplished the most important task of any first-time filmmaker: making viewers eager to see his next effort.

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