In Beasts of the Southern Wild, precocious six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the squalor that is known as The Bathtub, a fictional community in the swamplands of the post-apocalyptic American South. As the ice caps are melting and dry land is increasingly rare, the devil-may-care residents of The Bathtub live free and party hard despite being bounded within the borders of levees built by the industrial society. As we are told by Hushpuppy’s voiceover in the opening montage, her beloved home may be primitive and unkempt, but it is a place where babies roam free and the music never stops. Unfortunately, life as she knows it is threatened by a storm that flooded The Bathtub to the brim while her father is slowly dying from a mysterious ailment. Determined to prepare his daughter for life without him, Wink sets out to teach her survival skills and the important value of staying true to her roots before his end is near.
The Sundance and Cannes winner, by and large, is a metaphor for post-Katrina New Orleans—the home of director Benh Zeitlin, who is a transplant from Queens, New York. Besides his directing duties, Zeitlin also co-wrote the script with Lucy Alibar and co-composed the music with Dan Romer. In The Bathtub, Zeitlin attempts to create a vibrant society that has thrived despite the misfortunes that has befallen its residents. Though Beasts has wholeheartedly embraced the fighting spirit in its fictional world, it sorely lacks the exuberant culture that makes New Orleans such a unique American city. In his director’s statement, Zeitlin claims, “My approach to making movies is about crafting an energy, a feeling, and a way of life that the people that make movies with me can live. It’s about inventing a reality and populating it with the best people I know.” The cast and crew might have had the time of their lives but the resulting film simply fails to present The Bathtub as a world that is worth holding onto. What I see is a bunch of inebriated drunkards with dirt on their faces, drinking beer and eating seafood endlessly. Random chatter rarely amounts to actual conversations. Characters appear on screen as little more than background extras.
As the script has rendered the supporting cast obsolete, the load of carrying the film lies on the shoulders of the father-daughter duo. In her first acting role, Wallis is right on for her part as Hushpuppy— playing the role of a brave and adorable child without trying too hard to be cute or adult-like. Her omnipotent voiceover, though, is painfully overkill at times, especially when it goes from naively observatory to pretentiously self-reflexive. Henry, a non-professional actor who played Wink, is limited to mostly shouting and yelling out his lines. The fault mostly lies on a flimsily written part, which left him very little to build his character on. His most interesting scene is when the drunken Wink recalls his fling with Hushpuppy’s mysterious mother (He asks, “Have I told you the story about your conception?”). His surreal sexual daydream, though bizarre in every imaginable way, gives a glimpse of depth that is missing in such an important character. The father-daughter dynamic, which much of the story relies on, is also shoddily crafted. The “skills” that he teaches his daughter are questionable at best and the way he teaches is mostly laughable. Wink teaches Hushpuppy to fish by grabbing a catfish out of water with his bare hand (something that looks nothing like noodling) and punching it in the head. He also dismisses her attempt to learn how to open a crab with a tool because down-to-earth roughnecks like them are supposed to tear it open with their hands. Beasts is strangely attached to clichés of traditional masculinity—despite its female protagonist—as characters have repeated their disdain for “acting like a bunch of pussies” while Wink insists on encouraging Hushpuppy to “show me your guns” and to scream out “I’m the man!”
The most maddening aspect of the film is perhaps its anti-intellectual sentiments. Hushpuppy laments how people are plugged into walls in a hospital and her cure for her father’s illness is to put dirt and pine needles in his mouth, as instructed by her hillbilly Montessori teacher. The people of The Bathtub reject modernity but the film makes a weak case as to why their hobo lifestyle is above all, admirable. Filmmakers have romanticized poverty since the days of Chapin and De Sica, but Zeitlin fetishizes the plight of the deprived and rekindles Western culture’s long-held interest in noble savages. Unexpectedly, his film is poignantly topical and indicative of our times. Beasts might very well be sitting at the unimaginable intersection where tree-hugging hippies and tea-party Republicans can find common ground. It abhors the logic of scientific knowledge and values anti-authoritative individualism under the pretense of a collective. Hushpuppy’s final confrontation with the prehistoric giant hogs is visually parallel to the climax of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, but Zeitlin’s handling of his film’s thematic concerns is crude in comparison. Not all is lost in the over-hype since Zeitlin and his Court 13 collective has managed a few eye-popping sequences in Beasts even though his earlier short, Glory at Sea (a fantasy tale that deals with the grief of Katrina survivors), is decidedly a more interesting film that is built around a stronger concept.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is playing at Landmark River Oaks Theatre.