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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Posted by martinteller on February 21, 2013

In the bayou, on the wrong side of the levee, is a community that calls itself “The Bathtub.”  The residents here scrape together an existence from the detritus of civilization, living off what they can catch with a fierce devotion to their independence.  Here lives young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry), surviving on their own terms… while storms, the government and possibly the warthog-like creatures known as aurochs threaten them.

I’ll just say right off this didn’t do a lot for me.  It isn’t boring, it makes for a pretty easy watch (the relatively lean running time helps) and doesn’t drag out any of its scenes beyond their welcome.  The relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink is quite unusual.  It manages to be endearing despite the fact that Wink is a bit abusive (and neglectful) to his daughter.  This isn’t easy to pull off, and raises conflicting emotions in the viewer.  There are times when you wonder exactly what you’re rooting for, and why.  The complexity of this relationship is the movie’s strongest achievement.

But most of the film left me rather empty.  Benh Zeitlin, directing his first feature (and winning the Camera d’Or for it), seems to be going for something like George Washington meets Terrence Malick.  But it doesn’t achieve those heights, and instead seems to be floundering for a message, and cranking up the musical score when in doubt.  There’s a lot of trite “out of the mouths of babes” wisdom and the allegories aren’t so much labored as they are transparent and pointless.  There’s also something a bit condescending about it… I can’t help comparing it the movie I watched last night, In Vanda’s Room, and finding too quaint and folksy in its depiction of an impoverished community.

Wallis’s performance is certainly impressive for a girl her age, but it isn’t quite as impressive as the reputation (or awards and nominations) it’s gathered.  I really liked Henry, though, who has a spark of something extra behind his rages.  He has a palpable screen energy… although apparently no desire to continue acting.  There are some wonderful images, and the film is very good at establishing its world, but the camerawork is so bouncy as to become annoying.

There is an undeniable energy and a hint of originality to the film, but its pleasures were too scant for me.  Rating: Fair (66)

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4 Responses to “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

  1. JamDenTel said

    I have a lot of issues with this film. The fact that the other residents of the Bathtub besides Hushpuppy and Wink are nothing more than ciphers makes it hard for me to sympathize with them–and without that, some of the things they do in this film make it very hard for me NOT to root for the forces of civilization. Had the film explored this society more effectively, I might have felt differently, but as it was, I just wanted Hushpuppy to get the hell out of there.

    I also have mixed feelings about Wallis’ performance. I’m happy for her for the attention she’s gotten, but–I feel like America’s standards for child acting are pretty low, while at the same time I don’t really see how Wallis could get so much praise and yet Hunter McCracken’s work in THE TREE OF LIFE (a much more accomplished performance, in my opinion) seemed to go relatively unnoticed. She does a fine job, all things considered, but I think people went a little overboard in their praise.

    • McCracken is better for sure, but he’s also, what… twice her age? Still, the praise is definitely overboard. The Oscar nomination is a no-win situation… either she wins undeservingly (granted, I haven’t seen any of the other nominees yet but I’m kinda rooting for Riva) or she loses and learns the bitter sting of disappointment at an early age. Probably better for everyone if the latter happens.

      And yep, the other residents of The Bathtub are too minimal to care about.

  2. The movie did very little for me, too, Martin; glad to know I’m not alone. JamDenTel, I had the exact same responses, and good call on McCracken!

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