Rushing towards cinema screens on a fittingly analogical wave of hype and festival praise, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a creature of ramshackle beauty. Unfortunately, the intentionally haphazard structure of a world viewed through the eyes of a child, along with some infuriating sequences, cause this wave to come crashing down in a flood of mediocrity.
Hushpuppy (Quvenshane Wallis) is a scrappy young oik who lives in an impoverished southern delta that is about to be hit by a huge tropical storm. Her alcoholic father (Dwight Henry) lives a stone’s throw away, providing his own form of tough love that involves alienating his 6-year-old daughter and treating her more like a son with his requests for shows of strength. It’s preparation that proves to be warranted when the rising waters mean Hushpuppy must fend for both of them, as her father is struck down by an unexplained illness.
To make things worse, all of this appears to be taking place against a backdrop of environmental unrest. The polar ice caps have melted and this has caused the titular beasts to begin thundering their way across the planes on a collision course with our young survivor.
Beasts is a film filled with moments, all of which fail to gel together into a satisfying whole. Presented with sequences designed to stimulate the heart as well as the eye, you can never become connected to the characters depicted because the story itself feels so disconnected. Looked upon as cinematic debris then, in that this is often all over the place, it’s clear that what keeps the film afloat are the performances of Henry and Wallis.
The untrained Wallis is given the usually thankless task of providing a voiceover to accompany her exceptionally confident performance, but lines of poetic beauty such as “for animals that didn’t have a dad to put them in the boat, the end of the world already happened” only reinforce her staggering achievement at the heart of the film. Small but incredibly fierce, she holds the whole thing together and provides focus to a story severely lacking in it.
Henry plays his part too, giving Wink a worldweary aura and playing him with a depth behind eyes that have known nothing but struggle.
Director Benh Zeitlin gives proceedings a soft-focused, almost dreamlike quality with the hallucinogenic visuals. You’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s not, or a result of a 6-year-old narrator and the more fantastical elements of the story, but there’s no denying that it makes use of the limited budget to create a beautiful bayou for Hushpuppy and her band of merry men.
Such stunning locales indicate that the intention must have been, at least partially, to make an eco-friendly message movie, and Zeitlin exceeds in conveying the beautiful and unrelenting force that is nature.
Like Terence Malick meets Where the Wild Things Are, but an inferior beast to those influences, this should hopefully be the calling card for all involved to go on to make bigger and more satisfying cinema in the years to come.
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