Another year, another widely loved indie Oscar contender that I just can’t get as excited about as the masses do. Last year, it was ‘The Tree of Life’ that left me cold and wanting more (and ‘The Artist’ to a much lesser extent), and now I find myself not as crazy about ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ as I’d hoped to be. I’m certainly in the minority (even here at The Awards Circuit) with this opinion after wildly successful runs at the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, but I just can’t see what all the fuss is about. This modern-day fairy tale of sorts is a good movie, I grant you that, and at times a very good movie, so it’s certainly got plenty going in its favor, but it doesn’t ever reach that next level for me, and its flaws are readily apparent. For every good element in the flick, there’s a part that I wish was done differently. The acting is mostly terrific, especially by Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry in the lead roles, but the supporting cast is forgettable. The direction by Benh Zeitlin is ambitious, but only some of his choices wind up helping the film, and the same goes for the screenplay by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar. I definitely appreciate this movie (much like ‘The Tree of Life’ last year), and I like it more than I don’t, but overall I don’t really see what’s inspiring such adoration from the majority of people who’ve seen it so far. It may very well end up getting some Oscar nominations, and I don’t think it’d be a terrible selection, but I sure hope 2012 has some better movies in store for us than this odd mix of ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’, ‘George Washington’, and ‘The Tree of Life’.
There are really two stories going on here, and if/how they intertwine is mostly left up to you. Told from the point of view of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Wallis) and narrated by her, we’re introduced to The Bathtub, a small island community off of Louisiana. The population lives in filth and squalor, but they have a strong sense of community. Hushpuppy lives in a pair of shacks with her somewhat deadbeat dad Wink (Henry). He’s not the best father in the world, but they have a strong bond and clearly love each other. When the combination of Wink getting terminally ill and a Katrina-like storm approaching, Hushpuppy has to fend for herself and later decides it’s time to find her mother, who she believes is somewhere in the water. At the same time, she’s been told about mythical creatures known as Aurochs and foresees them breaking out of the melting polar ice caps and coming to eat her. It may sound like a lot, but there’s really not as much going on here as you’d expect, and it shows.
I can’t say enough good things about Quvenzhané Wallis and her performance. Dwight Henry is very good as well, but Wallis is easily the best thing about the movie. This has to be one of the most memorable screen debuts in a long time. She gives such a natural performance that it’s likely impossible that a more seasoned actress could have pulled it off. If Wallis becomes a contender during the awards season for a Best Actress nomination, you won’t hear me complaining at all. She deserves it and really helps to save the movie for me. As for Henry, he has some iffy moments, but for the most part is very believable in his role. Their scenes together are realistic and raw in all of the right ways. No one else in the cast really is of interest to the filmmaker and the performances show that, but the players include Levy Easterly, Pamela Harper, Lowell Landes, and Gina Montana. This is clearly a showcase for Quvenzhané Wallis though.
The problems and frustrations I have about this film come from the writing and directing, so for that I have to turn my attention to Benh Zeitlin. At times Zeitlin’s direction is inspired, but certain decisions (like the overly shaky cinematography) wind up being distracting. It’s a strangely beautiful film, so I don’t want to pick on him, but it’s an uneven piece of filmmaking for me. There are lots of great images that are really memorable, but they don’t add up to enough in terms of the film itself. I’m incredibly interested in seeing what he does next, as he has a lot of talent, but in my eyes his direction isn’t quite there yet. He’s clever, but he needs to hone his skills some more. As for the script he wrote with Lucy Alibar, it’s just trying to do too much, and winds up not doing enough. The Aurochs especially for me just seem like a waste of time, and the same goes for some of the repetitive scenes with some of the other residents of The Bathtub. The screenplay feels lived in and real, but it never comes together for me.
In terms of the movie’s Oscar potential, despite my issues with it, I expect plays to be made for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Picture and Adapted Screenplay seem like they could certainly happen, and I wouldn’t count out Cinematography at all, but the rest seem like long shots to differing degrees. Time will tell though, but I wanted to quickly give this a mention, since it’s what we do here at the site and all.
‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ has more going for it than not, but for a film clearly meant to be emotional and powerful, it wound up being kind of clinical to me, like a form of cinematic voyeurism instead of a fairy tale for the modern times. In the end I’m still recommending it, mainly for the visuals and the debut performance of Quvenzhané Wallis, but I do want to issue the caveat that you should check your expectations somewhat at the door. Doing so will likely lead to a more satisfying experience than I had. If this seems like a more negative review than usual from me about a film I’m ultimately saying I liked, just chalk it up to me being honest. The movie is good, but not as good as the early word has suggested. Decide for yourself though, like I did. I’ll be curious to know what you think of it…
-Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!