Beasts of the Southern Wild
It’s usually a clear warning sign when the Oscars embrace a heart-warming or uplifting tale of triumph over adversity. The results often tend to simplify issues, reduce themes to their most facile, and bang out notes that just don’t ring true. While it is always welcome to see independent movies get nominated, it can’t escape notice that when they do (Little Miss Sunshine), their trajectory is invariably one of punch-the-air uplifting overpowering sadness or misery. Which is no bad thing in theory; life-affirmatory sentiments are grand things. The downside is that, if these messages are not put together with a nuance, skill and craftsmanship that belies their apparent straightforwardness, they come across as cheap or manipulative. In Beast of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin creates an environment that is arresting and immersive, but as co-writer he fails to fully evoke the child’s eye viewpoint that is central to the premise.
Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s screenplay (based on her one-act play Juicy and Delicious) is narrated by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a six-year old girl living with her alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry) in an isolated community called the Bathtub. They are situated in a Louisiana bayou cut off by a levee; this is an edge-of-the-world existence to Hushpuppy, and the idiosyncratic schooling she and other children receive gives rise to a rich fantasy world filled with an imminent threat of melting ice caps and the encroaching presence of prehistoric boar-like animals called Aurochs (the actual name of an extinct bovine species). As her father’s physical condition worsens, so the Bathtub is flooded during a storm and the community’s tentative existence becomes even less certain.
If Hushpuppy’s narration and fantasy world feels like a highly calculated device, it’s because the writers are unable to successfully integrate it with the main narrative. Hushpuppy’s internal monologue never feels less than over-writing by adult(s) attempting to imbue her with the kind of innocent cutesy-wisdom that sends grown-ups all misty-eyed. And then it goes further, making the mistake of thinking this untutored innocence can teach us something. Because its artificiality is so clear (i.e. adults are the writers) it comes across as patronising rather than inspiring. We end up with a rambling gabble of homespun homilies, bearing more resemblance to Forrest Gump’s (another Academy darling) pearls of wisdom than anything that borders on essential truths.
There are doubtless a number of debates to be had over the film’s depiction of race and class (as plundering of stereotypes as the film may appear, it is worth noting that the play on which it is based feature white leads; nevertheless, the affected vernacular the writers have come up with is at times slightly too much, as if this is extant dialogue from Tom Hanks’ character in Cloud Atlas), and the pervading push-pull of what we are shown versus what we hear. The writers might have done something provocative with this material, but what their approach is relatively straightforward.
The Bathtub folk extol the virtues of their freedom from the system, which as an idea is an attractive one (although some have interpreted this in libertarian terms). But the “truth” we are shown is that the adults subsist on alcohol, while the father’s physical deterioration is a direct result of the surrounding squalor. Indeed, the refrain to the children is to toughen up and don’t be a pussy (these are kids who, like Max Rockatansky, think nothing of eating cat food; it’s near-as a post-apocalyptic world); this is an environment where the kids show reluctance to learn necessary survival skills (catching fish, eating crabs), and in the mind’s eye (of Hushpuppy) are starved of true parental affection.
To an extent, the movie succeeds in conveying the state of mind of child who accepts the only world she knows for what it is and imagines a further one, but this is almost entirely by means of Ben Richardson’s evocative cinematography and a charging music (by the director and Dan Romer), rather than the achievements of the writers. The fall-back mode of “life is beautiful despite it all” is not redundant because it is naïve or simplistic, but because the only means the Zeitlin and Alibar have of expressing it is through overstatement. This is perhaps best exemplified by the triumphant, heart-swelling score (cynical as I am of Academy motives, I feel sure this was a major selling point), which rouses the audience with the finesse of a master manipulator whenever Hushpuppy has some glib self-actualisation to impart. So too, the means by which she pieces together her understanding of the world are clumsily rendered; this is magical realism romanticised to the point where the subjective world of the child becomes overt commentary, rather than one we empathically experience.
As a result, certain aspects work better than others; when Hushpuppy punches her ailing father, and he succumbs to a seizure, we engage fully with how her reaction; moments, before she told him she wished he were dead. Later, the odyssey on which she and her friends embark treads the line between fantasy and reality perfectly; up until the point where her yearnings for a mother are verbally expressed to a mother figure (a prostitute who feeds her alligator; her actual mother shot an alligator on the day she was conceived, we are told). The preceding scene, where the surrogate mothers/prostitutes dance with the children at a whorehouse called Elysian Fields (geddit?), has a wordless beauty to it. It is in this sequence, with its fragmented, non-linear pose (beginning with the kids swimming out to a boat, which takes them to an underworld/heaven, the captain of which informs Hushpuppy that he likes retains all his chicken biscuit wrappers because “The smell makes me feel cohesive”) that the film nears the sense of transcendence it seeks. Then, when Hushpuppy announces, “I have to go back” and is transported to the vicinity of the Bathtub, it is the author’s voice not the child’s that intrudes.
As is usual in a tale of this ilk, the fantasy elements reflect the dramas of the real world and eventually converge at a climactic moment. We are introduced to fantasy imagery of melting ice flows and thawing creatures, but somehow this never really ignites the way it should. Perhaps the world Hushpuppy inhabits is so palpably different, and key moments such as the visualisation of her running through a trail of sparklers, are so arresting and heightened that the “actual” flights end up curiously flat. The poetry of her imaginings is forced. The advancing boars always feel surplus to the text, rather than integral. And worse they seem obvious inventions, rote mythmaking, just as Hushpuppy’s conversations with her absent mother are too common a touchstone. Compare Hushpuppy’s journey to the much less accessible path trodden by Eliza-Rose in Terry Gilliam’s Tide Land, and it feels as if Zeitlin goes for easy elation every time.
Wallis received an Oscar nomination, of course, on account of her being a stoically cute little moppet, with hair outcrop of hair loving framed against the Sun. It’s hard to say how good this performance actually is; Wallis has a wonderfully expressive eyes but Hushpuppy’s character is so informed by the over-egged narration, I suspect it will take a few more roles to assess whether this is a one-off. Annie will likely either bag her an Oscar or have her re-assessed as a one hit child wonder. It’s Henry who really impresses, from his drunken delirium and aggression, to the chinks in his armour when he shows how much he cares for his daughter, to his more convivial side. He’s strong enough that, even when the film drifts into sentiment during the final stages, Wink remains a fully inhabited character.
Beast is enjoyable enough on its own terms, but the hype has overwhelmed its content. Independent cinema that leaves you in mind of Hollywood cinema but without the budget is not necessarily a strike, but it becomes one when, instead of resonance and depth, there is emotional rhetoric and slickness. Beasts is well-performed, possessed of a striking visual palate, and blessed with a stirring score, but it is also very far from profound.