Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 17th January, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild has had quite a year. Premiering at Sundance last January to a Grand Jury Prize, going on to win the Camera d’Or for best directorial debut at Cannes, raising early speculation that we’d seen the sure-fire winner for the Best Picture Oscar, Benh Zeitlin’s fable of Louisiana flood victims was sailing through festivals until a sharp and persistent backlash blew it off as cloying rich-kid idealisation of poverty. Consensus rose and fell on the film in each region it played. Awards prognosticators ended up thinking it would be lucky to sneak onto the Oscar roster at all. Then along came not only a Best Picture nomination but a surprise nod for Zeitlin as Best Director. Given the lack of a big-budget favourite and the Academy’s proclivity for uplifting, against-the-odds parables, who knows, maybe it could actually win – it would be the biggest plucky underdog surprise since Chariots of Fire.

The film does have its flaws – often irritating is the deadly combination of close-up shakycam and exploratory use of focus with cutting that’s offputtingly pared and deliberate; there are moments that mix the worst of indie affectation and commercial slickness. Beasts also has beauty, not just because of the organic 16mm tones, or the scenes of Cajun music and fireworks and shrimpin’, but because it’s held together by the sincere-eyed, innocently drawling, heartbreakingly determined performance of 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. In its setting of ‘The Bathtub,’ a sinking, isolated community on the wrong side of a levee (based on the Isle de Jean Charles), and in Wallis’s character of Hushpuppy, whose ailing daddy trains her to stay strong and not cry, and whose teacher warns of prehistoric creatures called Aurochs, Beasts creates the kind of iconic location and lead character that show ambitions to create an instant classic.

This is Hushpuppy’s story – in among the real devastation of recurring floods, we hear her narration and see cutaways to her imaginings of glaciers falling and Aurochs making their way to The Bathtub, and it all leads to one fantastical, show-stopping moment of personal resolve. But thanks especially to a rollicking opening montage with partying locals and soaring orchestral music, detractors have fixated on the film as a romanticised view of some kind of anti-mainstream community wonderland. In one of the most articulate anti-Beasts essays, Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound says it offers “an opt-out lifestyle fantasy, a pleasing getaway into a crafty, locavore commune with a minimal ecological footprint.” He also offers alternative viewing in Les Blank’s Cajun documentaries, Elia Kazan’s Wild River and another, less famous recent Louisiana indie, Tchoupitoulas, which he calls “more in love with the world than the idea of being in love with the world.”

But see, the idea of being in love with the world – the heightened reality and fanciful pastiche that is crucial to the subjective perspective of Beasts – is what necessarily constructs the magical-realist apparatus of the piece. Hushpuppy’s idealised loyalty to her kinfolk and her imaginary fights with beasts are what make her a symbol of inspiration for an uncertain America, a folkloric hero in the age of global warming. Zeitlin’s short film Glory At Sea (2008), which shares thematic, rhythmic and musical DNA with Beasts, was more concerned with making peace with ghosts than halting beasts, but like this feature, the theme of resilience in the face of tragedy was much more central than “lifestyle fantasy.”  Beasts of the Southern Wild, for all its imperfections, is an example of the Great American Movie. Where Gone with the Wind was nostalgic over lost opulence, this is more like Goin’ with the Sea, forward-looking and hopeful even in the face of a post-apocalyptic waterworld.