Active Ingredients: Originality and vibrancy; Sense of location; Dwight Henry
Side Effects: Manipulation; Music; Distracting camerawork
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a unique film, a rare creative gesture that both invents its own universe and emerges from the energy of a specific corner of our own. Independently produced by a small crew collaborating with local (largely non-professional) talent, and with personality to burn, the film is messy, but its shagginess constitutes its appeal. Audiences looking for new tones, new pulses in a film don’t need all the corners neatly smoothed away. Indeed, even the film’s technical flaws separate it from other movies you’re likely to see in theaters or at award shows. It’s not Beasts’ budgetary or technical limitations that dilute its power as a unique vision, then, but rather its emotional calculations and the tried and true filmic devices it uses to turn a warts-and-all slice of magical realism into the most unlikely of crowd-pleasers.
Since it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Behn Zeitlin’s debut has slowly moved from indie sleeper to awards contender. Even Barack Obama has enjoyed it. Its mainstream popularity, however, is both surprising and almost preordained.
It’s surprising because the film’s visual textures, dreamy pacing and blend of social realism and imaginative whimsy are likely new to most viewers. The film is like a fairy tale told from the perspective of a six-year-old girl, Hushpuppy, played by the miniature dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis. She lives with her father in a poor and forgotten, but singular and proud, multiracial community in the Louisiana bayou called The Bathtub. When a powerful storm representing Katrina threatens their home, a force which takes on an apocalyptic tone in Hushpuppy’s mind, the community defiantly decides to sink or swim together, without the help of the evil white people at FEMA. (The film’s politics has rallied some, rankled others.) The success of Beasts might also be surprising for its extensive use of handheld camerawork and soft focus, which fetishizes the squalor of life in The Bathtub with a strange mixture of wonder and admiration.
Or maybe it’s no surprise at all that Beasts has connected with audiences. Zeitlin shows, despite the unpolished exterior of his film, a solid understanding of the cinematic emotions that simply work on film. The child’s eye sense of scale and wonder is beautifully realized, affecting and charming. Similarly, the film’s emotional beats—love, solidarity, sadness—all land with admirable precision. Yet something about this precision, aided by manipulative, stirring musical and tearful close-ups, is at odds with the intense authenticity of the film’s feeling of place. Zeitlin has hit all the right notes of a rousing, emotionally-satisfying film, but by co-opting these techniques he’s done a disservice to the personality and vibrancy that nearly leaps off the screen.