BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD Review: This Levee is Dry
One of the challenges of watching a film that has received as many accolades as Benh Zeitlin‘s Beasts of the Southern Wild has received is that the film comes with high expectations. Since winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild has gone on to win 50 awards, including four awards at Cannes; Best Picture (or equivalent) from both the American and British Film Institutes; and the Golden Puffin (!) at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, to name a few. The film is also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Oscars.
With this much awards circuit success and the accompanying hype, as a viewer I feel almost obligated to like it in some form, lest I be banished from my local cineplex and blacklisted at every Redbox in a 50-mile radius.
And as one who reviews movies, there is the added pressure to remain objective – to prove (for lack of a better word) that my assessment has not been influenced by outside opinions, be they positive or negative. (I also need to make sure that if my opinion differs from that of the majority, especially when that majority is a vast majority, that I don’t waiver for fear of being branded as someone who doesn’t know what their talking about. I understand that opinions can vary and that they are personal and that all opinions count, but there’s a difference between being labeled “fiercely independent” versus being labeled a “oh, that nincompoop.”) I went through this anxiety when I watched and reviewed Looper, which was widely praised by fan and critic alike. I happened to like it – a lot – so it never became an issue, although it was on my mind.
Oddly enough, as one whose intent was to write a review of the film, I didn’t feel the pre-Looper stress in advance of watching Beasts. The praise of the film had been so great, and so seemingly unanimous (not unlike Looper), I popped the disc into the player with all the confidence in the world that I would like it that much too.
So much for my faith in the masses.
Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the tale of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a little girl who lives in squalor in a place called “The Bathtub,” a tiny Louisiana bayou … well, community, I guess … that is isolated by a levee. When we first meet Hushpuppy, she is off-the-charts adorable, sporting that wonderful shock of hair and finding simple joy in listening to animals – completely unaware of the technology available to children her age whose lots in life are better, yet being none the worse for it.
Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), an angry man with an unspecified illness. Hushpuppy’s mother is, at best, absentee; at worst, she is dead. Hushpuppy and Wink and the residents of The Bathtub brace for a ferocious storm, and when it hits, it leaves their community flooded. The Bathtub brethren do their best to survive, but Wink’s decision to dynamite the levee as a way to drain water from The Bathtub draws attention to the survivors. The government comes in and enforces a mandatory evacuation, and brings everyone to a hospital for examination. Of course they keep Wink, so with her father ill and no other authority figure in her life, Hushpuppy sets off to find her mother.
Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.
I had such great hope for Beasts, especially in the first ten minutes, which is when I fell in love with Quvenzhané Wallis and assumed, especially based on the volume of accolades, that the best was yet to come. But it never came. Oh sure, the film has its moments, my favorite of which is the scene where Hushpuppy cooks a dinner for her mother (who isn’t there, of course), but these moments are too few and far between. And Wallis is undeniably adorable, but the more I watched, the more I was reminded of cute television child stars, like the Olsen twins on Full House or Emmanuel Lewis on Webster, who can hit their mark and say their line like pros, but who rely on their cuteness to carry them where actual acting carries adult performers. Wallis can pout with the best of them, as well as hit marks and deliver lines, but I never got a sense of any type of performance from Wallis, let alone one that earned her an Oscar nomination. Plus, a good portion of her dialogue is narration, which isn’t acting.
Also very two-dimensional – and wildly unbelievable – is Wink, the father. When the film opens, he is missing, but when he finally returns to their houses (yes, plural … more on that in a minute), it’s in a hospital gown. One assumes he has left a hospital without actually being discharged (and also that he never told his daughter that he had been hospitalized). Through a series of events, Hushpuppy winds up setting one of their houses (getting there) on fire. Wink expresses his displeasure by hitting her, and when she retaliates, he collapses to the ground. She scrambles for help but when she returns, he has disappeared again. Don’t worry. This isn’t the last of him. And yes, he does it again.
When I reference “houses” in the plural, I mean that on the property where they live, Wink lives in a shack while Hushpuppy lives in a trailer. The situation is so very odd, especially in the wake of the mother’s death. Or maybe disappearance? That’s the thing here; you never really know. And it isn’t like the difference between being dead and missing is key to any plot point. It simply seems to serve the story that mom isn’t there or that dad isn’t there.
I recognize the reality of life. I recognize that if one parent dies (or disappears), the other parent isn’t going to automatically become single-parent-of-the-year. And maybe Wink’s comings and goings, and his drinking, are merely indicative of how he behaved before Hushpuppy’s mom died (or disappeared). The problem here is that this is not even remotely explored. This father and daughter live their lives as if they are roommates who have just met for the first time and have been forced to live together because there are no other viable options in their life. And neither of them seem to care.
As for the rest of the denizens of The Bathtub – people with names like “Walrus” and “Little Jo,” – are nothing more than central casting creations who could find themselves just as typecast in Hillbilly Handfishin’ or some other reality show that thinks people from the south are engaging because they talk funny and have bad teeth.
This overall lack of any character development creates for the viewer no sense of interest in anyone, beyond being charmed, at least for a little while, by Wallis. And as I said to a friend shortly after watching the film, even though I didn’t care for Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway‘s character and situation in that film were fully developed in 20 minutes, but the whole of Beasts couldn’t achieve that for Wallis.
For those of you interested in the actual beasts that you’ve no doubt seen in advertisements (and pictured above), they are some sort of extinct prehistoric beasts that Hushpuppy is told will be released from polar icecaps due to global warming – the same melting icecaps that will cause flooding in the bayou. But at this point, I can’t care anything about them, either.
Out of five stars …