Benh Zeitlin's first feature (a Sundance hit) is the kind of ethnocentric indie I wanted to like a lot more than I did. Yet I still feel compelled to go easy on it. Why? Because Beasts of the Southern Wild displays such a persistently ambitious cinematic vision (despite obvious budgetary limitations) that I cannot help but be impressed by Zeitlin's dream-like approach to social realism and the unique voice of his magnetic 6-year-old protagonist, Hushpuppy (first-timer Quvenzhané Wallis).
The young girl lives with her sickly father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a fictional Louisiana bayou called "The Bathtub." It's a waterlogged place, on the wrong side of the levee, where residents survive on salvaged materials and whatever livestock they can raise. Their life is hardscrabble but mostly carefree, despite the efforts of government authorities to "rescue" them from the devastating and ever-encroaching effects of climate change.
Wink's approach to parenting can best be described as tough love, a harsh and sometimes neglectful attempt to prepare his daughter for a future without him. When dad's health takes a turn for the worse and Hushpuppy's visions of prehistoric creatures being thawed from the ice comes true (or does it?), the precocious 6-year-old sets off to find her long-missing mother.
Filled with colorful nonactors, a makeshift world that feels dangerously authentic, and lyrical forays into magical realism, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a garbage-strewn post-Katrina fairy tale that sometimes feels like the low-budget progeny of Where the Wild Things Are.
Taken from co-writer Lucy Alibar's stage play Juicy and Delicious, it is the product of a New Orleans' film collective committed to regional filmmaking. And the result is an incredible example of creative repurposing. From hogs outfitted in convincing prosthetics (to portray prehistoric aurochs), to the ravaged locales of Isle de Jean Charles to Wink's DIY boat, which was created out of a couple oil drums and the bed from Zeitlin's dead pickup, the film creates a world that is both tangibly real and nightmarishly surreal.
But like so many Sundance experiments, Beasts of the Southern Wild struggles to create a compelling drama. It wants to tell a small personal story amid a larger, more allegorical tale of environmental devastation and ethnic independence, but ends up driving its narrative into soggy subplots and thematic dead ends. The worst example of this is the presence of the aforementioned aurochs. Whether they are meant to be literal or metaphorical is beside the point, — their appearances are an awkward distraction from Hushpuppy's challenges and conflicts.
Presented with competing ideas and themes, stranded by a poorly paced (and structured) plot, you can be forgiven if you find Zeitlin's film a bit of a bore. It's not that his movie is uninteresting, it's that it never delivers a plot that's emotionally or dramatically satisfying. Atmosphere and subtext are no substitute for good old-fashioned storytelling.
Thank goodness for the fragile yet volatile relationship that exists between Wink and Hushpuppy. When Zeitlin zeroes in on the father and daughter, Beasts of the Southern Wild sucks us in and makes us care. No amount of allegorical affectation can compete with the emotional honesty of their interactions.
And by presenting things from 6-year-old Hushpuppy's logic and perspective, Zeitlin allows us to emotionally experience the confusing mix of devotion, tenderness and brutality in Wink's child-rearing choices. His love and concern are obvious (if a little haphazard), but when he strikes Hushpuppy, the impact is immediate and shocking, a reminder that for a child, love and terror often walk hand-in-hand.
It's moments like these that make clear why this film should have jettisoned the magical realism and, instead, explored more deeply its tough yet charming young protagonist as she struggles to find her place in a world defined and damaged by adults.
Opens Friday, July 20, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
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