Movie Review: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Benh Zeitlin, USA 2012)

For a small-budget film with a first-time director in director/co-screenwriter Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild received immense attention and acclaim. However, much of it was centered on child star Quvenzhané Wallis and the film’s depiction of a particular small, impoverished sect of society. That made me question whether the film actually deserved praise, and Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement made me feel even more uneasy. I was still willing to give it a try. Nonetheless, it turns out that my unease was well-founded. This is a poor film that’s receiving a lot of praise for unimportant, surface-level details.

The film isn’t quite sure what it’s about. It begins as a somewhat interesting metaphorical commentary about global warming, chastising adults for their selfish use of nature with no concern about it while the child listens to it and gazes on it in wonder. For about the first half-hour, it even stays relatively well-focused on that point. However, it then loses its way, becoming enraptured first with depicting the “tough love” (In real-world terms, I believe we call that “abusive,” but for some reason people insist on phrases like “tough love” for this film.) relationship between the six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father and then with depicting the culture of this group of poor people living outside of society. Neither of those depictions can work as the point of a film, but the film is too busy with them to continue with its environmental commentary, leaving behind a film so confused about its own direction that it really has no point.

Visually, director Benh Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson don’t do much that stands out, and the things that do stand out aren’t necessarily positive. The film is shot almost if not entirely with hand-held cameras, and they are particularly shaky throughout the film. Zeitlin and Richardson may have intended this shakiness to emphasize the “reality” of the film, but it’s difficult to say whether this effect worked. While hand-held cameras often humanize situations, the extremely shaky camerawork in this film served as a constant reminder that we are watching a fictional film. Otherwise, they essentially played by the numbers save for some fairly interesting shots early in the film where they allowed bright the bright lights of fireworks and other celebratory materials to overexpose the film, emphasizing the delight that Hushpuppy feels in the situation.

The acting is generally fine but with relatively easy roles. Wallis deserves credit for being able to perform adequately even in a static role given her age, but it just wasn’t a role that required much of her. Her house-burning tantrum is a perfect example—while she does everything the part needs, it’s a much flatter tantrum than, for example, Freddie Highmore’s destruction of the playhouse in Finding Neverland (Marc Forster, USA/UK 2004). Meanwhile, the only other substantial role was Dwight Henry’s role as her father. He performed adequately, but his role was also rather two-dimensional, simply switching between drunken anger and drunken elation. No one else has a role to speak of, really.

Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin’s score deserves a note, because it was excellent. It never got in the way of the film and heightened the emotional impact of every scene. In some cases, it even created an impact that the film was otherwise missing.

Overall, it’s an unfocused film that doesn’t know what it wants to say or how to say it, which is a shame because it wastes a rare adequate child performance. It’s not really worth seeing, which probably explains why the best awards of awards season (The National Society of Film Critics Awards, the Online Film Critics Society Awards, and the San Diego Film Critics Society Awards) did not show it the attention that the Academy Awards did.

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