Some time has passed since we’ve reviewed an older film for Weekend Review, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, the magical realist drama that the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips called “the most divisive film of 2012,” seems a good choice, with its blend of drama and fantasy and its SF-seeming setting. The independent movie received the Camera D’Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, among numerous other awards. Its star became the youngest person ever to receive the Oscar nomination for best actress. Critics, overall, were positive, and American President Barack Obama called the film “spectacular.”

Others found Beasts offensively condescending and sentimental, or argue that the inhabitants of its off-grid community come too close to the Noble Savage stereotype. Academic/activist bell hooks, whose work I admire, is among those who consider elements of the movie racist and sexist. Cole Smithy awarded it zero stars– a rating it shares with Battlefield Earth!.

So, what do we think?

Title: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Benh Zeitlin

Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, based on the play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar.

Cast
Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy
Dwight Henry as Wink
Levey Easterly as Jean Battiste
Lowell Landes as Walrus
Pamela Harper aas Little Jo
Gina Montana as Miss Bathsheba
Amber Henry as LZA
Jonshel Alexander as Joy Strong
Philip Lawrence as Dr. Maloney
Kaliana Brower as T-Lou
Nicholas Clark as Sticks
Henry D. Coleman as Peter T

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.

Premise:

A young girl grows up in an impoverished, off-the-grid community. After a storm destroys her village, she heads out on a strange odyssey where she encounters civilization, seeks her mother, and communes with prehistoric aurochs.

High Points:

Quvenzhané Wallis, five when she initially auditioned and nine when she received her Academy Award nomination, gives a stunning, natural performance as Hushpuppy, child of a community evocative of those found in post-apocalyptic fiction. The community, called “the Bathtub” by residents takes its inspiration from a handful of isolated placed in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, which has only one incorporated town. The power, fear, joy, and confusion of Wallis’s performance carry most of the film.

Low Points:

The story begins well, but the film seems unaware of exactly how the plot should develop. I’m not certain what to conclude from Hushpuppy’s journey, and the magical elements have been uncertainly integrated. What can work dramatically on a stark stage does not always fly when translated (however loosely) to the more literal medium of film.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 Certain aspects of the film are original, but several of the tropes and conventions will seem familiar.

Story: 4/6

Effects: 5/6 The aurochsen of Hushpuppy’s mind have been made into fierce, carnivorous pigs (in reality, they are the ancestral cow).. A better-financed production would most likely have used CGI or even borrowed a few of the pseudo-aurochs bred in Germany. Beasts uses the old-fashioned technique of dressing up real animals and filming them out of scale. In this case, trained, costumed pot-bellied pigs played the beasts. The technique can work surprisingly well, particularly when the species in question can, after a fashion, act.

One set was built on an angle and filmed with a tilted camera, to get the pigs moving with the necessary motion.

Production: 5/6 The film is beautifully shot.

Acting: 6/6 The central performances are so exceptional that I can overlook some extras who are merely good. In addition to Quvenzhané Wallis (see High Points), the film gives us a stunning debut by Dwight Henry as her disturbed but well-intentioned father. Henry was a baker, not an actor, but he survived Katrina, and he brings a natural energy to the part that a more experienced performer would have been hard-pressed to match.

Over half of the cast came from the Louisiana Bayous where the movie was set and filmed.

Emotional Response: 5/6 My rating would vary depending on where we are in the viewing.

Overall: 4/6 Complaints that the movie turns its characters into a kind of patronizing human zoo may carry some weight, but it would be difficult to make a story with any unusual setting and entirely escape that charge. In the end, the response lies with the viewer. The film may be sentimental in places, but I did not see it as identifying the impoverished community as somehow better than the civilized world— merely a place inhabited by humans who have the same dignity and ties to their world as the rest of us. The dangers Hushpuppy faces from forces inside and outsider her community seem clear enough. I also reject the simple-minded notion that the film is saying that poor people are better off in their impoverished world. The conclusion, taken in the full context of the film, is profoundly ambiguous.

I may not be the best person to comment on alleged racism, but I would raise a few points to consider before anyone presses this argument. The central role had originally been written for a Caucasian boy; the part went to an African-American girl. The Bathtub community features Black, White, and Hispanic inhabitants—but race doesn’t figure into their interactions. They divide the world between the people outside their community and their friends and relatives within it.

In total, Beasts of the Southern Wild receives 33/42.

Note

Terrebonne Parish plays a key role in the plot of The Pelican Brief, while DC Comics has situated its fictional Belle Reve prison among its sizable swamps.

Aurochs are ancestral cattle. The plural form, historically, is aurochsen, but aurochses or just aurochs are now in common use, if a plural for aurochs can be said to be in common use.