Beasts of the Southern Wild is a gumbo of melting snow caps, fragile father-daughter relationships, locavorism, Katrina conspiracy theories, and giant prehistoric pigs. Director Benh Zeitlin, making his feature film debut, finds the perfect locale for his celebration of mystical triumph over adversity in the swamps of Louisiana, and it could be argued that the location is the only thing fully realized in this film.
Beasts introduces the audience to life in "The Bathtub," a community set on the Isle of Charles Doucet off the coast of Louisiana. The citizens of this hamlet live in little more than shanties, homes improvised from found pieces of aluminum siding and trailers no one else would choose to live in. The central characters are Wink (Dwight Henry) and his 6-year-old daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a family barely scraping by on the chickens they raise in their yard and the catfish they catch in their boat made from a truck bed. It's on one of these fishing outings that Wink points out how lucky they are to live off of the land, instead of being surrounded by ugly buildings and the processed foods that can be found on the other side of the levee.
Waking up one morning in the house she typically sleeps alone in, Hushpuppy is unable to find her father anywhere. After days of fending for herself, Wink finally stumbles home, obviously having just run away from a hospital. In a fit of rage, Hushpuppy sets the house on fire and runs into town. There, she and Wink discover everyone is evacuating in fear of a storm that's heading straight for them. Along with a handful of other holdouts, the two do their best to ride out the storm and show that nothing can tear them away from the land that they love.
If you have ever wondered what a Wes Anderson film focused on the plight of poor folks would look like, this is the movie for you. Bad parenting, daddy issues, scenes that appear to have been shot with an Instagram lens — you'll find it all here. However, one of the biggest differences between the two directors is that Anderson seemed to have waited until the script for his debut (Bottle Rocket) was solid before stepping behind the camera; here, Zeitlin appears to think of himself as a disciple of Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) and fills the screen with scenes of chickens pecking in the yard when the character development runs out.
Actually, more than the aforementioned directors, the filmmaker that Zeitlin appears to have taken the most inspiration from with Beasts is the controversial auteur Harmony Korine. Much like Korine, Zeitlin seems to revel in showing viewers what "real" Americans look like. Whereas in Korine's Gummo you would find scenes depicting cruelty to animals and children eating spaghetti while in their baths, here you will see filthy children devouring crawfish, a child being instructed in the ways to destroy a crab's shell, and dead animals being dragged from floodwaters.
Zeitlin is a Wesleyan University graduate, and the guilt he feels due to his affluence practically oozes from the screen. Once taken from the friendly confines of the Sundance Film Festival, where Beasts was praised to the heavens as a radical new view of life down South, the director's attempt to capture poverty on film comes off as overbearing condescension. Of course, those doing the praising would probably never come close to this Bayou. Watching this film may lead to the revitalization of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or at least a Confiscate Rich Kids' Cameras movement.
From the amateurish acting to the terrible editing, Beasts is an exercise in "don't believe the hype." Maybe Zeitlin should take the example of another exciting young filmmaker, Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), and make what he knows. Or just find work in television; that would work too.