Each time the Sundance Film Festival rolls around, there are two categories of film which make the news: those that are so far off of the deep end that people become visibly upset by what they see on-screen, and those that people view as possible Oscar contenders for Best Picture. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film depicting life beyond the levees in Louisiana, is stuck safely in the latter category – and for good reason. As a debut effort from Benh Zeitlin, Beasts is an emotional journey through the life of a little girl and her father in the shantytown known as “The Bathtub.”
One of Beasts’ strengths is that it refuses to succumb to preachiness. An easy, lazy fallback for so many films focusing on poverty-stricken characters, it’s a big turn-off for me to see a film which decides to point fingers instead of tell a story. Fortunately, Beasts completely sidesteps this trope. While it certainly doesn’t ignore race and gender issues, they aren’t the focal point of the narrative; instead, we see everyone – black, white, male, female – working together to survive the hazards of living beyond the relative safety of the rest of Louisiana. Because of this, the audience is free to simply sit back and enjoy the story.
Zeitlin focuses his balanced portrayal of The Bathtub using a feisty, fearless little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) as his protagonist. As though her actual gender were completely irrelevant, Hushpuppy is repeatedly taught by her father how to “be the man” and fend for herself. This beautiful back and forth between her and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is the driving force which holds the film firmly together. Every conversation they have feels authentic, and their interactions never shy away from showing the good and the bad aspects of their relationship.
It is important that these two characters are totally believable, because Beasts also doesn’t conform to the usual three-act formula of most Hollywood movies. The central conflict of the story is revealed and developed from the first ten or twenty minutes onward, but only comes to its conclusion in the film’s final moments. Despite this, Zeitlin’s pacing is spot-on, and though the audience is never quite sure where the story is going, the film never drags for a second. It is risky to rebel against the classic Hollywood structure, but Zeitlin’s characters move the plot forward all on their own.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is told in a series of mini-stories which offer perspective on several different aspects of life in The Bathtub. As the relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy grows, and as the audience learns more about the community of The Bathtub, the moral grey area on how to handle each issue becomes more and more pronounced. Thankfully, ideas about what the levees mean to those trapped beyond their protection, as well as the right of government to displace those who do live out in the wilds, are all handled with care and introspection.
Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t perfect, of course. For a film whose title implies a strong imagination-driven motif, the actual “beasts” as they appear in the movie never represent anything more than an obstacle, in this case fear, that Hushpuppy has to overcome. Perhaps this was Zeitlin’s intention, but I felt like the concept of these majestic, mysterious creatures was wasted in such a basic metaphor. In Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, much more complex metaphors are illustrated similarly from the perspective of a young child. Still, the basic premise is executed well enough in Beasts, and so when Zeitlin doesn’t go the distance, the result isn’t debilitating – it’s just somewhat disappointing.
The other issue Beasts has is how it deals with emotion. While most of the film sets up a little world filled with colorful personalities that the audience can immediately care about, Zeitlin stops just short of driving home the connection in the final moments of the film. It is possible that he does so at the risk of using tired clichés, but I was hoping that the last moments of the film would resonate with me enough to bring on the waterworks.
At the end of the day, Beasts of the Southern Wild succeeds because it deftly handles politically charged issues and moral quandaries through the perfectly cast, innocent eyes of the six-year-old Hushpuppy. And while I am looking forward to Zeitlin’s next big screen effort, I am even more interested in seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild at least one more time so that I can begin to fully understand the layers of thought that went into its narrative construction. Beasts is a refreshing film that I heartily recommend.
Verdict: Movie Win