Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.
I don’t quite know how to react to Beasts of the Southern Wild. This film is obviously a piece of magical realism, so in that sense, there’s going to be some story stuff that doesn’t have a standard explanation. I don’t mean that—I can handle magical realism.
Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in the almost mythic place of The Bathtub. It is here that young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). She goes to school and evidently learns what it takes to survive in The Bathtub rather than what the rest of us might expect. The area is connected to the mainland and separated from the mainland by a causeway that keeps the people here isolated. Hushpuppy and her father live a life of poverty. Hushpuppy appears to take care of herself more or less because her father is sick, drunk, and often mildly physically abusive.
And then a massive storm, which can really only be Hurricane Katrina comes and floods out The Bathtub. Hushpuppy and her father ride out the storm while many of the rest of the people of The Bathtub leave. After the story, the area is completely flooded; the water stays because of the causeway, which prevents it from draining. A group of townspeople go to destroy the causeway and thus release the water, knowing that doing so will cause the mainlanders to come and take them all to a shelter, which is precisely what happens.
Through all of this, a great deal is made of mythical ancient beasts called Aurochs that have been frozen in polar ice. There is a legend in a town that these massive creatures will return, so of course they do. The Aurochs are gigantic boar-like monsters that tower over the people and their houses. Once they’re freed from the ice, which may be a commentary on global climate change, they start heading toward The Bathtub. I’m not entirely sure why no one sees them, since they are gigantic.
Here’s the thing: I very much get the impression that I’m supposed to like Beasts of the Southern Wild because it is strange and magical. Director Benh Zeitlin has created this place of savage beauty and wonder, a raw, untamed slice of the world where the people live in direct contact with capital-N Nature and survival is an act of will and physical toughness. I won’t deny what I’ve just called savage beauty. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a gorgeous film to look at. It’s no mistake that The Bathtub, while being cut off from the rest of the world and having only cast off remnants of modern technology, live in a world of abundance and plenty.
Okay, sure. That’s all well and good. Once this has been established, though, the film seems to have nowhere to go. We get the big storm, which is in many ways the big scene of the film, and it is impressive stuff. But then we have survival afterwards and the failing health of Wink. And? Giant monsters from the Arctic? The entire point of the second half of the film is to get those Aurochs to The Bathtub so that there can be this cinematic confrontation between two forces of nature: the giant critters and Hushpuppy herself. And?
I genuinely expected to be enthralled with Beasts of the Southern Wild and I genuinely was not. I’m not at all prepared to call this a bad film, but one that I couldn’t help but feel was a good idea in search of a point. The result is a film with some tremendous elements that fit like puzzle pieces that don’t quite match and are jammed together by a frustrated solver. “There,” the solver says, “Those have to fit together like that,” even though they really don’t.
The saving grace of the film is its diminutive star, Quvenzhane Wallis. Roger Ebert called her a force of nature, and to stand up and be noticed in this film, she’d have to be. She is worth seeing along with the beautiful photography.
But she’s not enough to hold everything together, try as she might. Benh Zeitlin rested the entire teetering mass of this unwieldy story on her shoulders and she does the best she can—the best anyone can or could—but she’s simply not enough. I hope that the acclaim Beasts of the Southern Wild has received gives her more and more opportunities to show that she is a name we’re all going to have to learn how to pronounce.
Why to watch Beasts of the Southern Wild: Quvenzhane Wallis.
Why not to watch: It became a thing more because it’s odd than because it’s great.
I actually agree. I wasn't blown away by this movie either. Quvenzhane Wallis is great, and it looks nice... but the overall movie is just kinda "...OK, I've seen this, now."ReplyDelete
Yeah--I guess I don't get the point of some of it. It's pretty, the kid is great. So...Best Picture nomination?Delete
I found the "Magical Realism" part of the movie to be the least effective aspects of it. What grabbed me was seeing this believable community living with basically nothing yet pulling together in the face of a crazy storm. Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry are both convincing, which helps a lot. I can't really argue against the criticism, though. I enjoyed the experience but probably won't revisit it. While it may not be a true "Best Picture" film, is it really less deserving than Argo? I liked both films, but they aren't five-star movies that people watch over and over again.ReplyDelete
I should admit straight off that I haven't yet seen Argo, although I plan to in the next couple of months. There are plenty of movies that are great--that might even be Best Picture material--that I wouldn't want to revisit.Delete
But I see your point. I feel like this got nominated because of its origins and the story behind the film more than because of the film itself. And Quvenzhane Wallis's performance from such a young kid didn't hurt in getting that nomination.
Thank you for putting into words what bugged me so much about this film, that I wasn't able to place on my own. I saw this one, expecting an ethereal ride through a semi-magical place, and thinking it was going to be something extra special, but it ended up just being... okay, aside from Wallis and the amazing production value. I personally don't think Zeitlin should've gotten the nom for Best Director (and three guesses as to who should've been nominated instead), and all the exceptional love this one gets, I don't fully understand, but I guess I can accept it.ReplyDelete
I think you've expressed some of my frustration here. I get that people like this film and I even get why despite not being there with it myself. What I don't get is the level of love. It's an interesting story that contains a really exceptional performance, but this is hardly the second coming of visual storytelling.Delete
I'll guess straight away that you're suggesting Argo was left out. My guess is that in a couple of months, I'll agree with you.
Yeah, Ben Affleck not at least getting the nom for Best Director is easily the biggest robbery the Academy's has this century so far. He WON the DGA Award and didn't even get nominated for the Oscar; that's only the third time that's ever happened in the history of those two organizations.Delete
FWIW, Argo is pretty good, a great popcorn flick, but that's about all I'd say (though I do have a review typed up for the next edition of the Book that mentions a bit more). I wasn't too convinced that it had done enough to earn the Best Picture accolade, but I can see why it got it, since there wasn't really a clear-cut standout nominee for the prize, as well as Argo's popcorn-entertainment mainstream readability. I think you'll like it.
I hope I will, since I just bought it on Blu-Ray. After all, what's a new Blu-Ray player for without discs to watch on it?Delete
I do expect I will like it. It's also in retrospect not a surprise to me that it won Best Picture, even sight-unseen. After all, the heroes in the film are movie executives. Hollywood has never been shy about patting itself on the back and telling itself how important, vital, and wonderful it is.
I thought that this film was at best just okay. My biggest problem with it is that it romanticizes poverty, and from the perspective of someone who has obviously never been poor. My family didn't have much when I was growing up (not as poor as the people in the film, but I remember a couple times going to bed with no supper.) There is nothing the least bit romantic about being poor. People who are not poor, like the filmmakers, think it is this magical life with no pressures and responsibilities, where you can just commune with life and the universe.ReplyDelete
As for the aurochs, my interpretation was that they were never there at all, that they were just in Hushpuppy's head. Her teacher talked about them and Hushpuppy made up the rest.
Nice point about the poverty. I've been in some dire financial straits before of the "feed the family or pay for the house?" variety, and there's not much idyllic about it.Delete
And you're probably right about the aurochs. But in that case, I'd expect more from them--her imagination (I'd think) would demand something more than just a brief showdown.