by Julien Faddoul
* 1 star
d – Benh Zeitlin
w – Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar (Based on the Play by Lucy Alibar)
ph – Ben Richardson
pd – Alex DiGerlando
m – Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin
ed – Crockett Doob, Affonso Goncalves
cos – Stephani Lewis
p – Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey, Josh Penn
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Marilyn Barbarin, Kaliana Brower, Nicholas Clark, Henry D. Coleman
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a con-job. The con in question, however, is so exquisitely implemented and so deeply layered in cinematic philosophy that I can’t help but bow in respect to the con-artist in question for pulling the sting off. I am certain of this because of its reception. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, many felt they had witnessed a unique, magical and truly original piece of work. I see a cinematic achievement equal to that of a perfume commercial. I see an emperor without any clothes.
Strangely, I am somewhat repulsed by my own reaction to the film. I think this is because I sincerely believe that everyone concerned with the film made it with the best intentions. But one of the nasty sides of the miracle that is creation is the fact that one person’s innocence can snowball into a group's malevolence. Movies take such a long time to make that along the away self-interest and arrant egotism replace absorbed inspiration and artistic intent. This is a modern artistic attribute, at least in cinema. It is also characteristic of first-time filmmakers, as is the case with Benh Zeitlin, who directed, co-wrote and co-composed (at age 29). I understand and I sympathise. Making one’s first feature film is an incredibly daunting and fearsome undertaking and the manifestations of that can be dire. Artistic opportunism is a deadly, deadly sin that most of us have committed at one time or another. So, truly, I sympathise. Nevertheless, I was the one who got stuck with having to watch the movie, and my reaction is my reaction.
Set in the fictional section of New Orleans called "The Bathtub", the picture focuses on 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis). She is a striking figure, with her big head of hair and her little gumboots. She narrates the tale using her imagination for aggrandizement, such as conjuring up conversations with her mother, who is dead (or whatever). Hushpuppy's father Wink (Dwight Henry) is constantly preparing her for the end of the world. At one point, he simply disappears. It is later revealed that he is incredibly sick. (He has what I like to call "movie sickness", in which the only symptom is lethal coughing for no apparent reason). Then the rains come and the entire town floods. Wink and a few stubborn residents come together to help each other survive. The film is based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote the screenplay.
This con is an intensely elaborate one with many different sections. The first section is plagiarism. Not inspiration, not homage, but mere theft. To call this film original, which many have done, is profoundly shocking and quite disturbing to me. The list of films that Zeitlin borrows from include Days of Heaven, Whale Rider, The Color Purple, George Washington, Where the Wild Things Are, The Tree of Life, Aguirre, Wrath of God, The Shining, The Piano and, most importantly, every single film that Hayao Miyazaki has ever made. This section is Mr Zeitlin’s one piece of foolishness as a con-artist. The phrase “reminiscent of the works of” is a tired one, but nonetheless, apt.
The second section is the film’s political agenda, which for me, is contradictory to the emotions the film is attempting to convey. When Pauline Kael first saw American Beauty, she accused it of “sucking up to educated liberals at every plot turn”. I feel Mr Zeitlin’s film makes a point only when it is suitable emotionally. Only when it “feels” right. The rest of the time, it hides behind the unconscious bravado of ambiance and sub-stratospheric imageries. Any movie set in New Orleans nowadays must have a Hurricane Katrina element to it, and all the politics that are associated. Mr Zeitlin is careful not to mention anything specifically but we do see white city people trying to forcibly evacuate the residents of The Bathtub that wish to stay. The movie takes a side on this issue, whether it wants to admit it or not.
The third section is the emotion itself, which I found barely lucid and never earned. Mr Zeitlin seems adamant in displaying The Bathtub populaces as brave, life-loving survivors. Why? The film is not really interested in their culture, or in their heritage (whatever that would be). We instead get countless scenes of heavy drinking and hedonism incarnate. But, again, what for? Their reluctance to do anything rational is never really explored. If Mr Zeitlin wants us to see everything through Hushpuppy’s eyes then the drama embodied would contain less inertia and more ambivalence. Both are bad, but the latter less so.
The fourth section are the characters. Early in the film, Wink is shown treating his daughter with alternating cruelty and disregard. Later on, he seems almost over-protective of her, treating her with pure parental devotion. Nothing whatsoever occurs between these two states that would explain this. And when I say nothing, I mean not enough. The cast itself is entirely non-professional. Mr Henry is quite good in the role, as is Miss Wallis, who is forceful and assured, but their characters and their relationship seems half-baked. They behave and emote only when the theological passageway of the film dictates it. They lurch from one emotional high-point to the next, in an attempt to keep the audience on a bellowing verge, so you cry without really knowing why you're crying. This is also aided by the film’s score composed by the director and Dan Romer, much of which is quite lovely and extremely serpentine, as well as Hushpuppy’s narration, in which it is impossible to not be reminded of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Well, maybe it’s not that impossible.
The fifth and final section is the mysticism, a requirement for any artistic con. Without revealing too much, the film contains a motif of a heard of beastly aurochs (hence the title) that are echoes of Hushpuppy’s imagination, and will later on be the guiding force of a blurring of fantasy-reality that occurs for Hushpuppy. This motif is about nothing. It is aimless mysticism that thrusts the film from experimental failure to arty rot. Of the entire con, this is Mr Zeitlin’s most egregious and unforgivable sin.
Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t tell its story, it sells it. It is just as much a product as Twilight or Transformers, and it sells its product as good as any commercial would. The only difference is the market that it is being sold to, which in this case is highbrow film lovers, most of whom are apparently as senseless as anyone else. Mr Zeitlin is an extremely, extremely smart young man who has left me in a state of frozen admiration. He has pulled-off this con superbly and will go on to receive accolades from critics and audiences alike.