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Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Directed by: Benh Zeitlin

Premise: A six year old girl (Quvenzhané Wallis) living in an isolated southern bayou must abandon her home to escape flooding.

What Works: The first thing to understand about Beasts of the Southern Wild is that this is not a film to be taken literally. The picture is similar to Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are in that it takes the audience into the mind of a child who is coping with complex adult problems and sees those issues through her eyes. The distinction between which elements are reality and which are childhood fantasy is difficult to make but this is ultimately irrelevant; the setting and events of the movie comprise reality as perceived by the girl at the center of it. What is important is her experience in total. That pretext is important to understanding Beasts of the Southern Wild and the movie is extraordinary among contemporary fantasy pictures. The movie looks nothing like so many of the overproduced fantasy films seen recently. Most contemporary fantasy pictures take place in computer generated environments in which people engage is massive battles with anonymous digital creatures and despite their thunder and showmanship these movies are often sterile and inert. By contrast, Beasts of the Southern Wild is organic and alive. The setting and the people in it possess authenticity and the movie’s limited scope tethers it to a recognizable reality; even the elements that are computer generated retain this organic quality. Although no one in this movie faces apocalyptic threats, their adventures and exploits have much more immediacy and heroism because viewers can recognize the humanity of the characters and engage with their struggles. Beasts of the Southern Wild is led by Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, a young girl living in a poor rural community and Wallis is terrific in the role. She is not unnaturally precocious in the way that children in movies often are and even as her innocence transforms into worldly understanding, the movie maintains the youthful qualities of her character. The supporting cast also aids this film and gives it a lot of texture and credibility. Beasts of the Southern Wild is also exceptional in that it is a challenging film. The picture is set in a southern bayou in which poor people are flooded out of their homes, clearly invoking the imagery of Hurricane Katrina. The film invites viewers to reprocess that imagery and the narratives around it in a new way.

What Doesn’t: Many of the aspects that distinguish Beasts of the Southern Wild are also likely to make the film difficult for some viewers. This picture was not made with mainstream audiences in mind nor is it a children’s movie, despite featuring a child actor in the lead role. The style of the filmmaking is very different from the kinds of movies generally playing at the local theater. Hollywood moviemaking, especially in the fantasy genre, has degraded to a very mechanized, and often unartful, industrial product line. The filmmakers of Beasts of the Southern Wild have much more poetic aspirations and in that respect the picture is refreshing. But mainstream viewers are likely to be bewildered by what they see and struggle to make sense of the movie. The whimsical style of the moviemaking does have some drawbacks, regardless of the filmmakers’ intents. Because it has the consistency of a dream, the movie is frequently aimless and it is hard to say precisely what Beasts of the Southern Wild is about. There are a lot of different story elements but the movie does not quite come together in the ending. The situation of the main characters remains fundamentally the same in the ending as it was in the beginning and although the film does have a resolution the picture is vague as to what exactly has been affirmed. 

DVD extras: Trailer and a featurette.

Bottom Line: Beasts of the Southern Wild is a unique movie and that alone makes it a novelty. The picture may not fit into the expectations of many viewers and as an art film it does have shortcomings but Beasts of the Southern Wild is certainly well made and a challenge to both viewers and to Hollywood filmmakers.

Episode: #430 (March 10, 2013)