Beasts Of The Southern Wild came out of Sundance with the kind of buzz only a small handful of films can manage every year — two or three, usually, if that — winning the Grand Jury prize, as well as the Camera D’or at Cannes. Loosely adapted from the play Juicy And Deliciousby Lucy Alibarm, it’s one of those movies about which the backstory is almost as rich a story as the film itself. The film’s star, Quvenzhané Wallis, was discovered at just five years old from a slew of slightly older hopefuls; the man who plays her father, Dwight Henry, was scooped up out of his job at a bakery the filmmakers frequented. None of the cast had ever acted before. Directed by Benh Zeitlin, it was made by the Louisiana collective Court 13 for a budget in the very low seven figures.
In other words, it’s the kind of film I’d really love to love.
It’s also a very difficult film to criticize.
Here is the story — a girl named Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink. Wink seems sporadically to be a good father. He sometimes strikes his young daughter but is also teaching her necessary survival skills, and hey, he got her this far, which couldn’t have been easy. We can never quite tell from one moment to the next what Wink is capable of or what kind of man he is, which makes us constantly uneasy. Hushpuppy and Wink live in what is called “The Bathtub,” a marshland that is expected to flood during an oncoming storm. They’re part of a very (and I mean very) small community of rough-and-tumble types who fend for themselves with little or no contact with the outside world. So little contact, in fact, that we wonder if there even is an outside world — Beasts Of The Southern Wild could take place in the recent past, the present, or the future. It sets its own rules. There’s a post-apocalyptic solitude and self-reliance to these characters, living off the land and making do with few possessions, so we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these were some of the last survivors on Earth follow a biblical flood. An early scene reminds us that humans, like animals, are made of meat, and the “beasts” of this film’s title really are the men, women, and girls who exist in this habitat the same way more typically “wild” creatures do. Which is why they are so reluctant to leave, as eventually they are compelled to do.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild is not a pretty movie. Which is not to say that certain shots couldn’t be considered beautiful, in their own poetic, even mythic way. It’s one of the dirtiest movies I’ve ever seen — which is not to say that it’s lewd, but rather, that almost everything in it is well-worn and covered in grime, particularly Hushpuppy’s unenviable home. (You may or may not feel the urge to get a tetanus shot upon leaving the theater.) The movie casts a lot of non-actors who look the part — people who have never been to an orthodontist, people for whom personal hygiene is a last priority. As befits its locale, there is an almost-palpable sweaty-stickiness to the movie, a level of texture few other films manage. You don’t just see and hear Beasts Of The Southern Wild, you smell and feel it, too. (Taste is optional, given your feelings on raw seafood.)
A lot of critically-hailed independent films in this vein have less going on than your standard Hollywood product; they’re what more manic moviegoers would call “boring.” Beasts Of The Southern Wild has more. Much more. You never quite know where this story is going. You may think it’s a simple story of a father and daughter fighting for survival in isolation, or a post-apocalyptic tale of a group of ragtag storm survivors. Or the story of what happens to these people when a group of oppressors finds them. Or a story of disease. Or a young girl searching for her long-lost mother. Have I mentioned the giant pigs yet? No? Well, there’s a surreal element to all this, too. Beasts Of The Southern Wild leaps around from conflict to conflict, never really alighting on one. It’s more an impressionistic experience than it is one coherent narrative. At one point, Hushpuppy insists to another character: “I want to be cohesive!” without understanding what that means. But Beasts Of The Southern Wild has no vested interest in being cohesive, and therefore, it isn’t.
There’s a lot to admire in Beasts Of The Southern Wild — the central performance by Quvenzhané Wallis, only six years old during filming. It’s raw and unpolished — she struggles with some of the dialogue, particularly in voice over — but it’s also ferocious and hard to tear your eyes away. The other performances feel similarly lived-in, documentary-like in their believability. No one ever seems to be “acting.” The New Orleans bayou location is, of course, one we rarely see; we can only imagine how difficult it was to film on such a low budget with all that water and swampland, all those animals. The attention to detail in the production design is astounding, and the startling originality of the story is something to take notice of. It’s a brave, bold film that makes no compromises to be more palatable for its audience. It casts a spell.
So it almost feels like heresy to complain about anything else, particularly when its “problems” feel so deliberate. Yet I found the film’s episodic nature a bit jarring. Just when I was getting invested in one aspect of this vast narrative, it ripped me away and began telling a new story. It’s hard to tell which aspect of the plot we’re really meant to hold onto. One aspect of this film in particular is obviously meant to be symbolic — yes, I am referring to those giant pigs. There’s a whole subplot about the polar icecaps melting and a group of prehistoric giant pigs called aurochs migrating on down to Louisiana, for some reason. I can enjoy magic realism when it’s done well, but Beasts Of The Southern Wild is already asking for a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. The aurochs are fine, but then there are other moments that also feel a bit surreal, and I’m not sure they’re meant to. I’m talking specifically about the dream-like last act, set upon a floating brothel, in which Hushpuppy finds a mother figure whose own motivations are pretty murky. The first act also has a hell of a lot going on all at once, and that relentless amount of drama is hard to buy if we’re really meant to take most of Beasts Of The Southern Wild at face value. (But are we?)
Beasts Of The Southern Wild is like a children’s storybook, so much so that it feels at times like whoever wrote it was Hushpuppy’s age, adding, “And then… and then…” without going back and tying up loose ends. But of course, given the symbolism and portent, that’s impossible. Individual scenes suggest entirely different movies — you could take any five-minute chunk of Beasts Of The Southern Wild and spin a totally distinct story from it. These moments are memorable as images and evocations of emotion more than they particularly tell a story. At one point, Hushpuppy and three other young girls do something that seems pretty impossible and end up somewhere they shouldn’t be, but no one reacts with surprise or tells them to leave. It just doesn’t feel realistic — more like a fairy tale, where symbolism takes precedence over believability, which we all acknowledge and accept for the sake of entertainment value. So… I don’t know.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild is at once stark and bleak in its realism and totally preposterous, even absurd; the way these elements come together isn’t entirely satisfying as a narrative, but it is fascinating and spell-binding, moreso after the fact than in the confusion of watching it. Certain elements of it are haunting now, even if at the time I felt more frustration than wonder. It’s like David Lynch’s Hurricane Katrina movie. The shadow of Katrina obviously looms large over Beasts Of The Southern Wild, since the story involves a storm that upends the lives of impoverished Louisianans. (The storm in question might even be Katrina, for all we know.) There’s a brief interlude that looks like it might make an unexpected social commentary about the flawed government response to such events, but the film ends up shying away from that, too. The film is so vague and sprawling that audience are welcome to fill in whatever gaps they like as far as what it all “means” — it touches on Katrina and global warming and poverty and whatever else — but I’m not sure there’s a real message. What is clear is that these characters — Hushpuppy and her very, very small community — are beasts of the southern wild, and want to stay that way. Take them out of their natural habitat, and they won’t survive. We’re meant to admire their independent spirit, but we also shudder at the squalor of their living conditions. Ultimately, we don’t get to know any characters besides Hushpuppy and Wink well enough to view them as more than symbolic figures.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild is one-of-a-kind, like no other film, really. If I had to make a comparison, it might be to last year’s The Tree Of Life, which similarly used elements of the prehistoric past and natural elements to enhance a tale set in the present. (And also some perhaps ill-advised grandstanding voice over.) The films are similarly ambitious and similarly ambiguous, as well as similarly sprawling in scope and story. Some view such films as artful masterpieces, others as pretentious drivel. I guess I’m in the middle when it comes to Beasts Of The Southern Wild. It’s a film I can’t dismiss, even though it might make my job here a little easier.
So. Can I recommend Beasts Of The Southern Wild? Not whole-heartedly. Can I forget it? No.