Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, critics and cinephiles have been raving about the ambitious Beasts of the Southern Wild. Those who love the film have praised it for its originality and striking storytelling that seems to lack in mainstream cinema. It won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, picked up by Fox Searchlight, and was shipped over to France for the Cannes Film Festival. It was at Cannes where Beasts won the Caméra d’Or prize (best first feature). This film seemed to have taken the film community by storm and everyone who hadn’t seen it were quick to add it to their most anticipated lists, myself included. This all led to an impressive box office for a limited theatrical release (averaged $42,426 per screen in its opening weekend). I was eager to see a film with such promise of originality. My hopes were soon diminished as I felt unattached to the narrative.
We experience the film from the point of view of a six year old girl by the name of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). She, along with her alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry), live in a fictional Louisiana bayou called The Bathtub. They, along with the other residents of the poverty stricken area, try to survive with the limited resources they possess. Hushpuppy is a girl who starts to become aware and tries to make sense of the universe. The news of a storm threatens The Bathtub, causing its inhabitants to try to avoid the inevitable environmental disaster. After no way of avoiding it, they must now try to overcome it. There is a bit of a fantasy element to the film as the polar icecaps melt, awakening ancient creatures called aurochs. These wild boars are large and dangerous according to the legends Hushpuppy only hears about. As Wink becomes ill with a lethal blood infection, Hushpuppy heads out of The Bathtub and goes on a journey to not only find her mother, but also to overcome her fears.
One of the biggest aspects of the film is the relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink. At times, their relationship with one another is very sincere father/daughter relationship. Although Hushpuppy is very independent by cooking for herself and even living in her own shack, Wink is her protector when he wants to be. There are a lot more times where Wink seems to be a threat to Hushpuppy as he smacks her around. Although Wink experiences a transformation throughout the film, I can never gain that much sympathy for him. I sadly found myself not invested in most of the characters and the narrative itself. From the numerous reports of the emotion this film provokes, I was expecting this film to be moving. It’s impossible to be moved by a film when you can’t even force yourself to be invested in the story. There is no doubt that this film had a story, but it didn’t strike an emotional cord. Its story had interesting elements but not enough to make it immersive.
I know, some of you are probably thinking right now “You didn’t like the story? Go back to watching Transformers.” As mentioned before, I was looking more forward to this film as any other film enthusiast. This was the first time where I felt genuinely disappointed by a film that I was very much looking forward to. I can’t pinpoint exactly what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting to be bored. Even though Beasts was an overall disappointment, there are a few great aspects of the film.
Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, made an impressive acting debut. Usually kids her age who try the whole acting thing aren’t very good. Her performance was surprising and honestly was the only redeeming quality of the film. Wallis brings a lot of emotion to the role which is important considering the film would’ve failed miserably without her. She has been receiving a lot of critical acclaim for her performance and deserves it.
Another thing worthy to mention is the overall production value of the independently produced film. This is the feature film debut by Benh Zeitlin. Before Beasts, he directed the short film called Glory at Sea, which can be seen on YouTube. Although the narrative is flawed, it’s undeniably an impressive debut for the filmmaker.
There were a few moments I recall that were wonderfully cinematic. One of those moments, used for the marketing campaign, was Hushpuppy running through The Bathtub during a fireworks celebration. The cinematography of the film was effective enough to add realism to The Bathtub. The way the camera moves with the characters was affective in its attempt to make us feel that we are catching a gritty glimpse into this fictional world. I will keep an eye on Benh Zeitlin’s career because he may have what it takes to release something truly remarkable down the road.
No matter how good the production value or leading performance is, a film should rely heavily on its story in order to be remembered for the years to come. Beasts of the Southern Wild is an imaginative effort, but it’s not cinematic gold.
Beasts of the Southern Wild – 6.5/10