Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, directed by Benh Zeitlin)

A little girl, Hushpuppy, and her father Wink try to make their way in an environment both fertile and inhospitable. Rules are few: home, family and community have to be defended. Never forget there's something out there that sees you as meat. And above all, no crying. Be strong. Be the man, no matter how big a storm is brewing on the horizon.

Beasts of the Southern Wild could only be a debut film. Much like Hushpuppy and Wink, Zeitlin himself seemed to have had few rules when constructing the world around them. The sense of invention and discovery, the rawness of the film, echo similarly energetic debuts centered on children like Laughton's Night of the Hunter and David Gordon Green's George Washington, but Beasts is very much its own beastie. Boundaries aren't so much blurred as ignored. You could call Beasts a fantasy, I suppose, but that description doesn't really do it justice. 'Fantasy film' implies a distinction between fantasy and reality, a threshold that needs to be crossed to bring a character into the magical realm or a seal that needs to be broken to let the magic spill out into our otherwise mundane existence. Instead in Beasts, 'fantasy' and 'reality' co-exist side by side, if not exactly peacefully, and both are equally natural to Hushpuppy. She makes no distinction between them. Her world is simply a big ball of glorious chaos where just about anything can happen - whether it's the glaciers melting and freeing giant Ice Age boars from their slumber, or a dynamite-filled alligator carcass blowing up a levee. Similarly, the film itself doesn't so much blur the distinction between genres as ignore the very concept of 'genre' entirely. You could just as easily call it a disaster film as a fantasy, a road comedy or a coming-of-age drama, but Beasts is too drunk on its own freedom to let itself get tucked away in a convenient box like that. It simply is itself, and you can accept it on its own terms and get swept up in its current or get out of the way.

Really, if Beasts put me in mind of anything, it's Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are. There's the same lack of wide-eyed wonder from the kids at the heart of the film no matter what gets thrown at them, and the same externalization of emotional turmoil, but where WTWTA's Max is dealing with the aftermath of a divorce that looms over him like a thundercloud Beasts is fueled by what Hurricane Katrina left in its wake, physically, geographically and spiritually. Katrina is almost an unnamed main character in Beasts, so thoroughly does its memory infuse the movie. Hushpuppy's world is a fragile one, pieced together from things washed up on her shore and left behind by the wind, and it sometimes seems like the only thing holding it together is her desire for any kind of stability. Even her friends and family are flotsam.

What Beasts wasn't for me, and seems like it should have been, is emotionally engaging. Here I am throwing around comparisons to a classic like Night of the Hunter or to Where the Wild Things Are (which almost felt autobiographical the first time I saw it), movies which I consider part of my own personal canon, and yet when Beasts was done I just thought it was... good. Cool and trippy, but nothing more. The look and feel of it, the subject matter, make me think Beasts should have hit home for me a lot harder than it did, and I can't quite put my finger on where the distance is coming from. Beasts looks great, it's certainly unique, and it's easy to see why it's been such a critical and festival darling... but it didn't have me leaving the theater thinking I'd seen the next great film about childhood.

What the movie done well though, it does very well indeed. Despite its ramshackle aesthetic it never comes across as artificial or forced, and Zeitlin has certainly marked himself as a director to watch out for down the line. Beasts is, like Hushpuppy herself, fierce and immature, proud of who it is and where it came from. And  I'll take a jury-rigged raft like this over a summer sea full of Battleships any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

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