Here’s Looking at You, Kid: Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild

By Adam Nayman

A prize winner at both Sundance and Cannes, Beasts of the Southern Wild has made an industry darling of its 29-year old writer-director Benh Zeitlin and a Film Comment cover girl out of its six-year-old star Quevenzhané Wallis. It’s been rubber-stamped in various venues by Manohla Dargis, Scott Foundas and Amy Taubin, and its promotional materials prominently bear the endorsement of The New York Times: in his rave review, A.O. Scott says that “Beasts of the Southern Wild winks at skepticism.” But some skeptics have nevertheless made a point of rolling their eyes. In a zesty, strategically brazen pan for Mubi, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky literally calls “bullshit” on the film while briskly inventorying its aesthetic failings. “The language Beasts of the Southern Wild speaks isn’t really the language of cinema,” writes Vishnevetsky, clearly not mincing his own words. “It’s the language of cinema as it’s been co-opted by smart, arty advertising in the last two decades.” Taking the consensus American movie of the moment and comparing it to a designer jeans ad is more than just a skeptical wink back—it’s a full-on stink-eye.

But is Vishnevetsky perceiving things clearly? If nothing else, Beasts has a vision, and it sees it through from the first frame. Under Zeitlin’s direction, cinematographer Ben Richardson shifts between destabilizing, off-centre compositions and restless tracking shots, between drab natural lighting and brilliantly illuminated objects and locations, the doggedness of the alternation giving the impression of dynamism. So does the combination of the rough-hewn 16mm images with the triumphal musical score (co-written by Zeitlin and Dan Rome), which doubles down on the feeling of woozy lyricism. The ten-minute pre-credit sequence, which introduces the film’s diminutive heroine Hushpuppy (Wallis) and the isolated but close-knit bayou community she calls home—or will until she and the rest of its residents are displaced by a Biblical storm with resonances of Hurricane Katrina—is shot and edited to create a rushing, surging sensation. The question is whether the funny feelings being stirred up are butterflies or nausea. And the fact is that Beasts’ aggressiveness leaves little room for a more settled or less visceral constitutional response.

The case for sitting on the queasy side of that divide is that Zeitlin (who adapted the script with playwright Lucy Alibar from Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious) wildly aestheticizes poverty— hardly an original sin, but then none of the other recent Sundance-ratified indies dealing with isolated American enclaves—e.g., Ballast (2008), Frozen River (2008), Winter’s Bone (2010)— stylized their backdrops to this degree. Here, living off the grid is roughly equivalent to a state of grace: “The Bathtub,” as Hushpuppy’s home turf is colloquially known, is a sort of enchanted caricature of subalternity. Its inhabitants are rugged individualists, marching to their own drummer and at some points literally fighting off the government agents coming (slowly and impersonally) to their aid. The script repeatedly emphasizes these iconoclastic qualities, implying that the preternaturally empathetic and perceptive Hushpuppy is the sturdy product of her fertile environment—that, as they say, it took a village to raise this child.

And yet what’s weakest in Beasts of the Southern Wild —what hobbles it even more than the overly ingratiating music, Hushpuppy’s overwritten voiceover, or the overused cutaways to encroaching pig-monsters seemingly borrowed, in look as well as symbolic conceit, from The NeverEnding Story (1984)—is the under-realized quality of its ensemble acting. This is not a small point, as most of the pieces about the film make glowing mention of its genesis under the auspices of the Louisiana-based collective “Court 13,” a self-described “Independent Filmmaking Army” that was “born in defiance of academic regulations, fire codes and health laws,” which aims to “make movies for the masses,” and whose members “listen to Sam Cooke, can beat you in racquetball and feast on Siriracha Sauce by the gallon.” (There are other such pearls of prose on the Court 13 website, should you want to read further.) The group was formed during the production of Zeitlin’s short film Egg (2005) and his subsequent, much-travelled 25-minute Glory at Sea (2008), a sort of test-run for Beasts that, while not very good, felt authentically like the product of a collective. Its story of waterlogged Delta dwellers building a boat to try to rescue their drowned departed was arguably facile as post-Katrina commentary, but rather persuasive as an allegory of its own cobbled-together creation.

In Beasts, the feeling of a film with multiple authors is gone, and so is the endearing sense of people pulling together (on either side of the camera). This is a very single-minded movie, and the decision to filter the film’s reality through the perspective of a single figure—the ever-sagacious Hushpuppy—is both successful, in the sense that people seem to really respond to it, and the dramaturgical equivalent of an escape hatch. The blurriness of the other characters can be safely fobbed off as a byproduct of Hushpuppy’s very particular point of view, rather than any sort of creative myopia. But the fact that the Bathtub dwellers are never really developed beyond their initial presentation as ribald drunkards is not just dramatically problematic: since it drastically thins the texture of the film’s already threadbare reality, it’s also suspiciously expedient. It permits Zeitlin to populate his film, which prides itself on its status as a (heightened) piece of regional portraiture produced in collaboration with the locals, with raggedy, half-formed ciphers and then play the naïf-card: This is what the world looks like through the eyes of a child.

Except that Zeitlin isn’t a child. He’s a bright, well-educated young filmmaker (this is not a criticism) who seems to be cannily playing down to both his film’s socio-economic milieu and his demographically distinct audience. (Those are criticisms). It’s arguably unfair to make too much of the fact that this film about poor black characters has been packaged (if not consciously produced) for a largely white and upscale festival/art-house audience, and it’s definitely unwise to try to ascribe ultimate motivations to an artist. I won’t go as far as Vishnevetsky in saying that Zeitlin is consciously trying to sell anybody an ideological bill of goods, but there is something uncomfortable about how unashamedly this reputedly ambitious filmmaker embraces certain tired stereotypes—the nobly disenfranchised peon and the quasi-mystical black child, specifically. And there are moments when it seems to me that Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t overreaching, but being actively disingenuous.

It’s hard to believe, for instance, that our Hushpuppy is ever really in danger, although there are all sorts of threatening figures and situations, from her crumbling environment to the various failures of her wobbly, woebegone father Wink (Dwight Henry) to those aforementioned pig-monsters, which, in a bit of Linda Manz-meets-M. Night Shyamalan exposition (surely an alternate title for this film could be Lady in the Water) are dubbed “aurochs”—an ancient word which translates as “big, ambulatory metaphors.” It’s less that Zeitlin is trafficking in that old standby of child endangerment (though there’s a bit of that) than that Hushpuppy, who cuts an instantly iconic figure in the prologue running pell-mell through the frame trailing sparklers behind her in each hand, is so obviously insulated from harm by virtue of her capital-I innocence that her journey of self-awareness is really just a victory lap. When she literally faces down her snuffling demons in Zeitlin’s laboriously prepared magic-realist money shot, it’s not so much a rousing finale as a fait accompli. The aurochs slow their roll and bow in the face of Hushpuppy’s overriding goodness and self-confidence; she’s got things under control.  If the director truly does equate himself with his hard-hustling underdog protagonist—after spending an entire film couching his own philosophical ruminations in her halting little voice—then it’s a bit of authorial self-projection that has also turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Zeitlin currently seems to have world film culture at his feet.

Rejecting Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t about taking its creator down a peg; the scattered negative reviews won’t affect its box-office as much as the hurricane-sized wave of good ones, to say nothing of the smart, arty advertising being mobilized to put it across to a midsummer audience eager for something without any Avengers in it. But it does feel like something is at stake with the instant canonization of a film that doesn’t really bear up to the scrutiny of a long, hard look, and whose champions seem to have blinders on, if not the critical equivalent of cataracts. In a summer when film criticism lost one of its most perceptive-ever sets of peepers, it might be appropriate to say that Beasts is considerably Less Than Meets the Eye.

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