The wildly original Beasts of the Southern Wild comes to Grapevine this week toting a host of critical hosannas and an eye-catching haul of festival awards, having won the Grand Jury Prize and cinematography awards at Sundance this year before taking home four different prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. You can easily see why. This low-budget independent film is an extravagantly imaginative tone poem about a poor black girl in the Mississippi River delta. It practically screams “festival favorite.” And therein lies the problem.
The script is based on co-writer Lucy Alibar’s stage play entitled Juicy and Delicious. The girl in question is 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), whose mother abandoned her to the care of her hard-drinking father (Dwight Henry). They live together in a Louisiana section of the delta called “The Bathtub” because it’s so wet and floods so easily. Tired of her dad’s abusive ways, Hushpuppy runs away from home in search of her mom, but she doesn’t get far before a massive storm hits the area and forces her and her dad to subsist on a pickup truck bed that has been turned into a makeshift raft.
First-time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin bears the influence of Terrence Malick, and given how much his story meanders here, some Malick-like visual poetry is just what we need. Acting as his own cinematographer, Zeitlin shoots some amazing things, like the back of Hushpuppy’s head framed by a fireworks display and the surreal scenes of wreckage from the flood. Some interludes depict Hushpuppy’s fantasies about ancient beasts called aurochs, and they are a magnificent sight, giant horned swine the size of houses charging through the delta. (The real-life aurochs were cattle and not swine, but let’s not get too technical.) When you consider that the overall budget for this film was less than $2 million, the effects here are as spectacular as those of any Hollywood blockbuster made for 100 times that amount.
That’s not all here, either. Zeitlin elicits terrific work from his non-professional cast, or at least chooses them well. Henry, a New Orleans-area baker by trade, gives a memorable performance as a raging but pitiable man trying to do the right thing by his child. Opposite him, the wild-haired Wallis is a fierce little presence anchoring the film. Late in the movie when she commands the aurochs, you believe that those giant beasts would bow down to her.
The movie falls down, however, trying to make a statement about humanity’s place in the cosmos. “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” says Hushpuppy in a bit of voiceover narration. “If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the whole universe will get busted.” Yet instead of taking its cue from that sentiment, the story goes round and round from one dreamy visual to another without ever coming to a point. I wouldn’t think of asking this film to fit together ruthlessly like a 90-minute crime thriller, but there needs to be some sort of ordering principle, even if it’s a principle that we can’t explain but can only sense. Without that, Beasts of the Southern Wild is lodged in a state of pretty but empty reverie.
The denizens of The Bathtub may be poor, uneducated, and missing their teeth, but the movie depicts their lives as happy, filled with music and bountiful harvests from the sea. (One of the glorious visuals is a haul of crayfish poured out over a table for everyone to eat.) By contrast, when Hushpuppy and her dad are taken into a government shelter after the flood, the place is sterile and joyless. I’m sorry. I have to call foul here. There’s nothing romantic about being close to nature when you’re dirt poor, the way these characters are. Most movies about rural poverty know this fact well, but this one treats rural poverty like some state of divine grace. That’s a dangerous fallacy.
Compared to films in a similarly lyrical vein such as Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou, this doesn’t withstand the comparison even though it surpasses those movies technically. Beasts of the Southern Wild defies genres and marks out Benh Zeitlin as a talent to watch. It’s well worth seeing. Yet it’s still overrated.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Directed by Benh Zeitlin. Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, based on Alibar’s play. Rated PG-13.