“Beasts of the Southern Wild”
It’s easy to see why Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, set in a flooded, future-tense Louisiana, made such a strong impression at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (where it won the Grand Jury Prize). Though made for a mere $1.3-million, it forsakes the routine naturalism of so many other American independent films, opting instead for lush imagery and a deliberately mythic, poetic tone. It also taps into popular post-Katrina sentiments about race, class, and the environment, giving it a conveniently topical aura. But once you’ve registered the movie’s style and ambition, you begin to register something else: how completely facile it is. The movie looks great, but it doesn’t have a cogent thought in its head.
The tone is set from the very first moments, when a motherless moppet named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) gambols through an overgrown yard filled with farm animals and rusted-out machinery. Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s sun-drenched imagery is lovely — and what’s not to like about a six-year-old playing with ducklings? — but then the girl’s yammering narration begins, and it’s so impossibly soulful and lyrical it would make Terrence Malick giggle. Pressing her ear to various animals’ sides, she listens to their innermost selves: “Sometimes they’ll just be sayin’, ‘I’m Hungry,’ or ‘I gotta poop,’ but mostly they be talkin’ in codes,” she tells us. Later, she gets downright transcendental: “The whole universe depends on everything fittin’ together just right. If one piece busts — even the tiniest piece — the whole universe’ll get busted.” With her skinny body and bushy hair, she’s like a Pez dispenser doling out new-age wisdoms.
Hushpuppy lives with her daddy (Dwight Henry) in a dirt-poor bayou community called the Bathtub (actually the parishes of Lafourche and Terrebonne), where the shabby houses sit on stilts and fisherman ply the waters with boats made of plastic rain barrels and used car parts. Nearby, a system of levees keeps the community at arm’s length from the rest of America, the “civilized” part. Though the Bathtub appears squalid, the vibe is edenic — the mostly black residents are earthy, resilient, and they don’t seem to do much but twinkle and cavort and live life to the fullest. For a long while, the film consists almost exclusively of random exultant moments scored to Coplandesque fanfares: lusty fisherman hauling up the day’s catch, toothless men and women drinking and laughing together, children running through fields with sparklers. Compared to the Bathtub, a Hobbit village would look sedate, and it all gets to be a bit much. Zeitlin and his co-writer, Lucy Alibar, seem to subscribe to that old, phoney Hollywood myth: that living close to the land makes people better, more deeply spiritual. “Me and my daddy, we stay right here — we’s who the Earth is for,” says Hushpuppy like some pint-sized Ma Joad.
Viewers less glucose-intolerant than I might be able to stomach this stuff, but to what end? Zeitlin never gets around to anything more complex. He barely even has a story to tell. All he’s interested in is enshrining his tiny heroine as some paragon of strength and endurance. As Hushpuppy, the six-year-old Quvenzhané (pronounced: kwe-VEN-za-nay) Wallis is indeed formidable, not to mention immensely endearing. (If she weren’t, the movie would be intolerable.) But Zeitlin is so in thrall to the character he never lets her be an ordinary kid. Actually, she is an ordinary kid — she never does anything particularly heroic or noteworthy (except in one totally preposterous scene near the levee) — but the music and the images keep telling us how wonderful and inspiring she is. Even the dumb or outright bratty things she does — setting fire to her home, running away on her father — are aggrandized.
The idea, I guess, is that we’re seeing events through her eyes, and that all kids are wonderful to themselves and to their parents. But what child has ever had such an outsized sense of herself as this one? “In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub,” she tells us. (Those aren’t a child’s words, they’re the words of self-conscious filmmakers straining for significance.) Even the movie’s sole bit of suspense — the impending arrival of fearsome arctic beasts called aurochs, loosed upon the world by melting ice caps — turns out to be just one more way of paying tribute to Hushpuppy. Beasts of the Southern Wild may be a marvel of low-budget craft and technique, but it adds up to little more than a feel-good self-empowerment fantasy. It’ll make you want to rush out and buy Hushpuppy key-chains and day calendars.
The movie got me wondering, though: are Louisianans the new idealized embodiment of America? Since Katrina, artists of every stripe have been using the people there to represent all that is good and enduring in the American spirit. It’s an understandable impulse, but it robs Louisianans of their complexity. Even David Simon, who did such a great job capturing the good and the bad of Baltimore in The Wire, faltered with Treme, an overly adoring, sentimental depiction of post-hurricane New Orleans. (We need more works like Spike Lee’s monumental When the Levees Broke, which captured the great good spirit of the people there without any fake uplift.) The 29-year-old Zeitlin — who, for the record, is white, Jewish, and moved to New Orleans from New York in 2008 — clearly has good intentions, but his thinking is almost willfully shallow. The “beasts” of the title aren’t the aurochs, they’re the inhabitants of the Bathtub, and while the designation is meant as some sort of half-assed compliment (“Poor, disenfranchised black folks — they’re so real!”), it’s just the whole “noble savage” routine rearing its head again. Beasts of the Southern Wild may be the first movie populated entirely by Magical Negroes, and it’s being lapped up by white, liberal audiences eager to absorb their earth-wisdom.
Scott MacDonald writes about cinema for Toronto Standard.