Long time readers may be familiar with something I’ve referred to as the Juno effect. When all I hear about a film for months before I get a chance to see it is positive hype, there’s a decent chance the movie is going to disappoint me. Expectations become too large. I’ve become pretty good about tempering those expectations and enjoying a film simply for what it is… as opposed to what I want it to be, but still, there are movies you just naturally find yourself very excited for. 2012’s “little indie film that could,” Beasts of the Southern Wild, racked up nothing but accolades after its showing at last year’s Sundance and while it remains a visually sumptuous ode to the fierce power of nature and the bonds of family and is carried on the shoulders of one of the greatest child performances in years and years, the movie never managed to strike a real emotional resonance.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is an allegorical, fantastical drama centered around a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) that lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a deeply impoverished but tight-knit community in the Mississippi Delta called “the Bathtub” beyond the levees that keep cities like New Orleans above water. Hushpuppy’s daddy begins to get sick right before a massive hurricane (possibly Katrina) bears down on their community. When the hurricane arrives and destroys the Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her daddy set off in their boat to find anyone else in the community who refused to flee when the storm arrived. And as they try to build a new life in an environment that is quickly becoming a water-drenched wasteland, Hushpuppy learns to grow up and take care of herself. Because Hushpuppy supsects (though her dad would never tell her so) that her daddy is dying.
I was floored by the feral and natural performance from Quvenzhane Wallis as the young hushpuppy. Considering that she was only five years old when she was first cast (she’s 9 now making her the youngest actress to ever be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars), director Benh Zietlin’s discovery of this spectacular talent could be considered one of the greatest casting coups of all time. She’s now up there with Anna Paquin in The Piano and Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, except maybe she might be even more impressive cause she was so much younger. She wasn’t the usual precocious child type that tends to draw attention. She was just a child raised in an entirely different social environment than you’ve ever encounted and Wallis sold the wild child at the heart of this little kid. She could break your heart, make you smile, and make you laugh. She outperformed virtually all of the adults of the film.
And although Benh Zietlin had a tendency to overstate the fantasy elements of the film (the last scene with the aurochs seems especially egregious and unnecessary) to the point where the film’s keen visual style threatened to overpower every other aspect of the film, it’s still impossible to watch this film and not be overwhelmed by the beauty and visual poetry that Zietlin finds in the poverty and environmental catastrophe that is Hushpuppy’s home. The film doesn’t poke fun at its heroes and instead it celebrates the life these men and women choose to live while capturing the noble suffering they face when the environment (and man-made levees) return to remind them who actually has the power. The film can be a phantasmagoric, colorful evocation of the spirit of the American south and the wide-eyed wonder of childhood.
Sadly, I could just never really invest myself in the actual characters outside of the film. Any investment I had in Hushpuppy was related to a biological instinct to care about children in danger as well as Quvenzhane Wallis’ sublime performance. The characters often seemed one-note and (dare I say it) almost racist caricatures of how blacks in that part of the South are portrayed. The film becomes such an avalanche of one traumatic event after another that the characters rarely have the chance to breathe and grow. They aren’t given a chance to respond to the horror in a quiet moment here or there and so when the film reaches its inevitable tragic conclusion, it doesn’t hit with half of the strength that it would have if Zietlin had let up the pressure just a bit here and again to let us really become attached to these characters.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is still an endlessly charming and wonderful film even if it falls just short of being greatness. In its presentation of rural poverty, it has become this year’s Winter’s Bone (although not nearly as good) and as a sociology lesson, it should prove especially fascinating. I only wish that the film proved more cohesive from a character and narrative standpoint. Regardless, for anyone with an interest in the human costs of natural disaster and the heart and beauty of people living on the fringes of normal society, Beasts of the Southern Wild was a wonderful reminder of the strong year that 2012 proved to be for cinema.
Final Score: B+