Beasts of the Southern Wild is a coming-of-age story that appears to have been so rigorously designed to be a film-festival hit that one can't help but wonder if it sprang fully formed from a petrie dish somewhere in a hidden Sundance laboratory. Director Benh Zeitlin covers all the bases necessary of a film destined to be positioned as the little engine that could. There's a foreboding downtrodden atmosphere complemented with an awkward and often tedious element of faux-profound mytho-poetics; a plucky young hero with a can-do attitude played by sure-to-be-breakout star, and a narrative conflict that consciously—and, inadvertently, tastelessly—taps into contemporary fears and tragedies, capped with an ending that assures audiences that all of the simulated atrocities they've just witnessed will be overcome in the end.
Portions of Zeitlin's work are legitimately visionary, and that's not something that should be easily discounted. The Bathtub, the fictional portion of New Orleans that Zeitlin and his gifted collaborators conjure, is an impressively distinctive, detailed, vaguely fantastical world that optimistically suggests the resurrection of all of society's trashed resources; first and foremost, Zeitlin exhilaratingly communicates the joys of ecologically—or more ecologically—sound living. (In one of the film's cleverest bits of set design, a demolished truck is memorably reborn as a boat.) Visually, Zeitlin often effectively stylizes everyday objects with deceptively casual, fly-by-night staging.
But Zeitlin has a neophyte's distrust of images that frequently undermines the film. The script provides a competent structure with which the filmmaker can hang his images, but it's also overly verbose and reliant on white middle-class guilt to achieve its emotional effects. The film has a sheen of earnestness that misleads one away from the bald calculation on display, as the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the Bathtub, with one exception, are fetishized as one-note emblems of good will and clean living that's uncorrupted by fancy-schmancy materialism.
It's the implicit anti-materialism that frequently trips Zeitlin up. Beasts of the Southern Wild revels in a stereotype that's classist. Zeitlin clearly reveres his characters and the real New Orleans they represent, and that reverence cripples the dramatic possibilities as well as the potential for conveying deep empathy. The majority of the film's characters aren't differentiated, mostly portrayed as mystical hillbillies in possession of a kind of elemental wisdom. They brave quite a bit of catastrophe, but with the exception of the ongoing conflict between Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father, Wink (a startling Dwight Henry), there's very little sense for the social tensions that manifest during times of duress. These people drink, but they rarely curse, rarely fight, rarely do anything that might complicate a sentimentality that's born of a fantasy of escaping the traps of mainstream society. Nothing, not even an act of God, can compromise the Bathtub's earthy connection to the root of the Things That Truly Matter.
That inadvertent condescension undermines the film's most impressive sequences. The Bathtub is obviously meant as a stand-in for New Orleans in its entirety, and the narrative is symbolically grappling with the storms that have crippled that city in recent years. A severe hurricane strikes the Bathtub in the second act, which affords Zeitlin the opportunity to break from the relentless sermonizing of the dialogue to relate a story of survival with clean, muscular visuals. But in the overall context of a film that too often glosses over the tolls of disaster, these passages offensively play as a mere blip on the road to formulaic self-actualization.
The self-actualization Zeitlin is concerned with is, of course, Hushpuppy's, and she narrates the proceedings endlessly in a series of monologues that further distort the often considerable power of the images. Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar, who wrote the play on which the film is based, can't quite figure out the function the narration is meant to serve. At times, Hushpuppy's interior thoughts are understandably functional and naïve in an effort to reflect a child's reaction to a variety of contrastingly nasty upheavals, but in other moments they're stylized in a bid for heightened poetry. These twin ambitions unsurprisingly cancel one another out, and so the film is overwhelmed with a series of fortune cookie bon mots that insultingly trivialize the events at worst and are merely irritating at best.
As Hushpuppy, Wallis has a striking presence and could be a major find, but the schizophrenic conception of her role renders her insufferable. Wallis, of course, has been the film's major talking point, and that alone indicates Zeitlin's most galling failure: People are walking out of a film in which an entire micro-society is nearly annihilated thinking mostly about that cute and adorable little market-friendly sprite.
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Shot on 16 millimeter, Beasts of the Southern Wild sports an intentionally gritty, handmade look that very effectively grounds the film's more overtly symbolic passages in a recognizable reality with an emphasis on the quotidian. Logically, the image presentation here is grainier and rougher around the edges than the image offered by the typical Blu-ray, which is ideal for the film's vividly homegrown, imperfect aesthetic. Colors are soft throughout, but that softness, particularly in the final act, serves to achieve a hallucinatory effect that greatly works in the film's favor. The 5.1 DTS-MA mix is conventionally stunning, as it preserves the film's sophisticated mix of the score with hundreds of minute sounds to immerse one in the film's milieu.
A number of extras are included, but most of them contain little information. "The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild" is most notable for including footage of actor auditions, but you can access that footage directly on a separate feature. Otherwise, the most notable inclusion is director Benh Zeitlin's first short film, Glory at Sea, which is a clear warm-up for Beasts of the Southern Wild that's similarly impressive and exasperating in roughly equal measure. Also included are deleted scenes with director commentary, the theatrical trailer, and a couple of short featurettes on the film's music as well as the use of the Aurochs as a symbol in the narrative, but these are all skippable.
The most gallingly overrated film of the year, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a comfortable middle-class fantasy of the moral purity of abject poverty.