Homegrown "Beasts of the Southern Wild" easy to respect, difficult to love

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
93 min., rated PG-13.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" has been riding a wave of critical praise from rave reviews, and yet, it might already be the most divisive film of 2012. Twenty-nine-year-old co-writer and director Benh Zeitlin's feature debut was a prize winner at Sundance (the dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Excellence in Cinematography Award) and Cannes (The Camera d'Or), so positive enthusiasm is the majority opinion. But while the filmmaking is not difficult to respect, the film's critical acclaim is puzzling. Outside of artistic admirability and homegrown technique, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is too busy pushing our faces in its self-conscious authenticity and grittiness to really tell a story.

Working from a script he co-wrote with his childhood friend Lucy Alibar, loosely based on her play "Juicy and Delicious," Zeitlin set out to make an allegorical parable in a post-Hurricane Katrina world (or at least one that closely resembles such publically known wreckage) crossed with magical realism. The spunky Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in "the Bathtub," a bayou community in the southern Delta that's separated from dry, modern life by a levee. Mom "swam away," but Hushpuppy fends for herself while her abusive, perpetually drunk, but tough-loving daddy Wink (Dwight Henry) does what he can to feed them both. Hushpuppy is already prepared for hard times when a massive storm floods the Bathtub, Wink contracts an illness, and ancient Aurochs are unleashed from the ice caps melting, or at least that's what she envisions. Through Hushpuppy's little eyes, we see the squalor and her inner strength that helps her confront life's boar-sized challenges. 

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is never lacking in vision, Zeitlin dropping us into the harsh, mucky, unprettified conditions of the Bathtub and capturing a sense of place that's so real it might as well be from a documentary. The most indelible images come early on and in the last half, some of which are transportive and majestic, including dialogue-free shots of Hushpuppy listening to animals' heartbeats and then a celebration of fireworks where Hushpuppy runs wild with a sparkler. There are also wonderful moments, as when our plucky heroine thinks back to her daddy's stories of her long-lost mother (who was so pretty she didn't have to turn on the stove to light it). A third-act sequence, where Hushpuppy finds her way into a sweaty club and is fed fried alligator by a tough waitress who could be interpreted as her mom, is especially dreamy in vision and tone. Even the imaginary, warthog-like Aurochs (which were encased in Ice Age glaciers and then set free by the storm) aren't CG effects but actually dressed-up pigs. 

On the contrary, Zeitlin has a tendency to suffocate his mood and some of his imagery. There are ways to capture a lived-in grittiness, but shaking the camera relentlessly like a snow globe and making it slip out of focus are artistic choices that grow misguided here. A few more peaks and valleys may have helped, or perhaps the use of a tripod. Shot on grainy, hand-held 16 mm film, the camera is constantly roaming, its aesthetic tics merely calling attention to themselves and distracting us from the imagery and drama. Compared to Terrence Malick's tone poem "The Tree of Life," which also divided audiences last year, Zeitlin never holds a shot steady enough to let the images wash over us, whereas Malick's impressionistic visuals were beautifully composed.

Because so much has gone into the unique, rough-hewn look and feel of the film, one may wish there were more to the screenplay. From a narrative standpoint, it's pretty rudderless and lacks the kind of momentum that would suck us into this world. Since a level of frustration is built in for a large chunk of the film, it prevents the film's final scenes, involving Hushpuppy and Wink's relationship, from making a deeper emotional impact. One thing is for sure: Hushpuppy is the film's shining star and can stand up to anyone and anything.

6-year-old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis shoulders the film with a waifish confidence and warrior-like strength; she has extraordinary spirit for a girl of such tiny stature and, without having any training, is really one to watch. Her performance will surely be remembered and recognized by year's end. Dwight Henry, who owned a New Orleans bakery across from where the production was holding a casting call, is utterly convincing and unaffected, especially when he's lovingly teaching his girl to be tough like a man. "I'm the man," Hushpuppy screams when she arm wrestles her daddy. Supporting work is equally raw and unpolished by a cast of non-professionals, playing defiant, beer-swilling locals.

A singular piece of work made with very little means, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is proof of a collaborative effort from the director's team (credited as "Court 13"). It also introduces a new world that cinema rarely sees. But, while never ceasing to be ambitious, unusual, and thematically interesting, the film ultimately fails to captivate. It may not be the fantastical masterwork that it's being universally considered, but Zeitlin is surely a filmmaker with a purpose.