Thursday, 1 November 2012

FILM REVIEW: Beasts of the Southern Wild

The above picture provides just one of the many striking images first time director Benh Zeitlin brings us in Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year as well as making a name for itself in Cannes. Wildly ambitious, with a premise that evokes both fairytale and apocalypse, it's a shame the film's loose narrative and incoherence towards the end fails to deliver the magic.

Six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a southern community known as the Bathtub. Her mother has long since deserted them, and Hushpuppy has been brought up to fend for herself from a very early age, and due to long absences from her father has learnt to cook for herself and keep house. When a storm threatens the area, herself and her father hide in their home and re-surface to a changed world: everything is underwater, and soon plants and livestock begin to die. Naively believing by draining the floodwater things will go back to normal, it just leaves more carnage and Wink is injured during the attempt. The survivors are then found and 'rescued' by a group of aid workers who order them to leave their devastated land and come to the rehabilitation centre, where Hushpuppy is washed and dressed and her father is put onto medication and treated for what is assumed septicaemia. But unhappy with this 'modern' way of living they break out and return to their homes, where Hushpuppy declares she is going to look for her mother. After a chance meeting in a bar with a woman she believes is her mother, she returns to the Bathtub to look after her dying father.

I struggled when I came out of this film to find a word that accurately described it - it's not a bad film and I didn't want to give any negative connotations to it. However the film it reminded me of the most was Where the Wild Things Are - more about 'play' than narrative, dreamy surreal landscapes, told from a child's POV, large creatures (here the giant warthog Aurochs - above) which are representations of ourselves. It was definitely less tiresome and annoying than Where the Wild Things Are, but shared its core problems. And the word I finally decided upon was "overreaching" - it's a film punching above its weight; a mouse trying to be a bear (and hey, I can relate to that). The ending for all its pertained epicness amused me, "one day history will know that a Hushpuppy lived here with her father in the Bathtub" - no they won't! It's a small, remote community and its their story. Trying to pile on the grandeur and scale feels amiss.

Things do happen in the film, but there isn't really any sense of development. I wanted a fairy tale, but it was too meandering. Very pretty to look at, yes - the cinematography around Louisiana where it was filmed adds to the laconic atmosphere. But there is only so many shots of the river I could take before my concentration began to drift. I desperately wanted to go on a journey with this film but it feels so sporadic. I liked the storm and its aftermath (very timely, too) but hated the direction it took after that - it was too static, and then the 'rescue' by the volunteers didn't go anywhere either, it just seemed to serve a point that Hushpuppy and Wink are indigenous to their land, to the wild, and can't be doing with clean clothes, medicine and technology.

I found the whole sequence where she goes off to find her mother just bizarre. This is where the fairy tale element seems to fit the most - though we never know if it's her real mother or not whom Hushpuppy connects with, the idea of magically being drawn to her despite knowing nothing about her exists. But it didn't work for me - the strength Hushpuppy draws from it (to be able to stand up to a Auroch, when the film reminded me of something Miyazaki might do) she had within her anyway, we didn't need a sojourn like this to learn that. It's the scene where Wink is eating his last meal - Hushpuppy has to feed him he's so weak - and they are crying when I knew this film's heart had passed me by: this is the moment when you bawl your eyes out, but I was oblivious to any emotion except for the tiny bit of joy in knowing we were quite near the end.

Quvenzhane Wallis was great as Hushpuppy and had a lovely line of detail to her performance - she could say so much with her eyes alone. But it's just her age giving her acclaim here: she is really good, but it's not an Oscar winning work. I did enjoy the relationship she has with her father - both are fiery animals, he'll hit her, she'll hit him straight back - and he talks to her more as a man and a 'king of the Bathtub' than as a girl, as his daughter. Combined with her fierce spirit and independence it's hard to feel the heartbreak for Hushpuppy, and this is where my disconnect came in.

There were moments and details that I really loved, such as Hushpuppy's 'cave' drawings on her cardboard box, and the loungey 20s music soundtrack (which really reminded me of The Caretaker) was something of a surprise and complimented the film well. But it was more of a pleasant while away the hours than an essential viewing experience for me. Not one I'd watch again - too much vision for me, and not enough on the ground storytelling. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a bit like its young spirited protagonist: a girl trying to be an adult, this is a small film trying to be big, but it has lofty ambitions it can't quite grasp.

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