'Beasts of the Southern Wild': A Ferocious Storm
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Back in the late '80s, Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau (who currently blogs for MSN Music) wrote this capsule review of the debut album by soon-to-be-rock-star Lenny Kravitz: "For a black Jewish Christian married to Lisa Bonet who overoveroverdubbed his Hendrix-Beatles hybrid himself, not bad. But that's a lot of marketing to live down." I was reminded of his pointed joke when calibrating the way I went into a screening of this indie sensation versus the way I felt coming out.
That's to say: Going in I was pretty skeptical. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is one of those pictures that arrives in theaters on the advance of having slayed 'em at the Sundance Film Festival. As years of experience have taught the avid movie lover, the significance of having slayed 'em at the Sundance Film Festival these days tends to be pretty variable, to the extent that one's first impulse upon hearing such news is skeptical: a "prove it" or "win me over" posture as opposed to "that sounds good."
Then there were the descriptions of the movie and its elements: a small-"s" surreal (or, worse, "magical realist") tale with intimations of Hurricane Katrina whose protagonist and narrator is a preternaturally wise and precocious 6-year-old African-American girl who goes by the name of Hushpuppy. Yeah, that's a lot of marketing to live down, for sure. "Danger, Will Robinson, danger," said the big clunky robot in my head for weeks before I was set to actually see the movie.
Well, don't let the robot in your head, if you have one, get too loud about this movie, because it actually is really wonderful. Yes, it does deal in tropes that, in the hands of filmmakers less deft and inspired, would yield little else but an ash heap of we-care-a-lot clichés, but director Benh Zeitlin, co-writing a script with Lucy Alibar based on her stage play, brings remarkable imagination and ability to his empathy and near-galactic ambition. The movie's imagery is always striking, surprising and somehow never off-key. The views of the variety and strangeness of bayou flora and fauna have an assurance and a newness that suggests, of all things, something like "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Zeitlin's also got a knack for making connections that look like left-field stretches on paper make perfect sense on a screen, as when Hushpuppy's stream-of-cosmic-consciousness narration leads to an image of a glacial avalanche.
Sure thing, you might say, but what about a story? "Beasts" does have one, or rather the skeleton of one, on which the filmmakers hang the vital organs that bring the picture to life. Little Hushpuppy lives with her loving but unstable dad, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a quasi-compound consisting of a shack, an elevated trailer home and a boat made from the back of a flatbed truck in a South Louisiana bayou called "The Bathtub." There, most of the divinely addled (not to say drunk off their butts) residents intend to stay put despite the huge storm that's likely to wipe the whole place off the map.
Largely unsupervised, Hushpuppy's alone with her thoughts and her various critters, who move her to muse, "Everyone's hearts are beating and squirting and talking to each other in ways that I can't understand." Also present in Hushpuppy's imagination (or is it just that?) are a bunch of giant aurochs (the four aurochs of the apocalypse?) we sometimes see rampaging over the land in Godzilla-movie style. Before she can even think of trying to tame these destructive forces, Hushpuppy has to come to terms with her dad's increasing inability to function, and with the fecklessness of various adults.
It sounds cutesy to have a young girl mutter such thoughts as "the fabric of the universe is gonna unravel," but Zeitlin is such a canny craftsman that he's able to strike the mythmaking notes so they resonate rather than stink up the room. Of course a huge amount of credit also goes to Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy with a lack of affectation that's practically miraculous. As she goes from one jaw-dropping, mud-drenched mini-adventure to the next, each scene mixes naturalism and the otherworldly in a way that one thought was barely possible anymore. And while the movie's imagery goes about blowing your mind, it also sets up some heartbreak, ending on a note addressing, in a suitably narratively oblique but nevertheless emotionally devastating way, the obvious absence in Hushpuppy's immediate and even extended family.
The movie isn't entirely perfect: I found that portions of the music score, by Zeitlin and Dan Romer, and using regional-flavor instrumentation, was kind of on-the-nose and sentimental in ways the images and acting themselves were not. Nevertheless, "Beasts" is striking and affecting in all kinds of ways. Among other things, I defy you to leave the theater without a strong craving for batter-fried catfish (such was my own that I actually made it for the first time a night or two later).
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.