Sunday, July 29, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Grade: N/R
Cast: Quvenshane Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director: Benh Zeitlin

I probably shouldn’t write about Beasts of the Southern Wild since I walked out in the middle of it. I didn’t really expect to write anything about it at all. But here I am.

In fairness, my departure had more to do with an early morning doctor appointment than disgust. That said, the greatly hyped Sundance winner – the story of a girl and an isolated community dealing with the flooded aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – did leave a pretty thick layer of disappointment.

Walking into Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was mindful of the fact that this was a story of impoverished country people in the Louisiana delta conceived by a private school graduate from the East Coast. What I felt I walked out with was a movie about impoverished country people in the Louisiana delta conceived by a private school graduate from the East Coast.

That origin is not insurmountable. Affluent artists have always written about the poor, some very successfully. This is moviemaking, after all, where they make movies about the underclass on soundstages in Hollywood. Still, it is a real obstacle. And it’s an obstacle that debut director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t quite figure out how to deal with effectively. While I wouldn’t call it phony, it is wanky, and the film never quite reaches the illusion of authenticity.

One path would be with a fairy tale style, and sometimes Beasts makes that departure. Browsing his biography, Zeitlin’s parents are folklorists, and Beasts contains elements of folklore. It has a child who cooks dinner by blasting the stove with a propane flame, for goodness sakes. But the film never quite makes a necessary choice between realism and lyricism. Visually, this film bathed in mythological elements is grounded by techniques built to enforce reality. It goes so far as to use a shaky cam style, the sort of thing designed to convince us of the gritty realness of an alien invasion. Beasts is a little like a Zora Neale Hurston story filmed as if it were District 9.

For these reasons, Beasts of the Southern Wild reminds me a little of Alejandro Gonzalez Inniritu’s Babel. After the splendid success of Amores Perros, director Gonzalez Inirritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga ultimately split in different directions. In Babel, Inniritu’s realism/hyperrealism ended up in a different place than Arriaga’s Fassbender-like melodrama. There comes a time in Babel where you feel the script working against the direction, and you can feel the film’s loose stylistic ends. I felt the same way here.

So what do I have to say about it, finally? Chin up. The willingness to make a story about small places and delicate lives is encouraging. Zeitlin is a different voice, and I suspect it will eventually find its range.

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