Film has always been a great medium for sociological inquiry. And not just documentaries either. Digging into a culture or setting that may seem foreign to most of us, even if it’s an American one, always has a chance to be compelling. The Bathtub, the local name of a small island off the coast of Louisiana in the Mississippi Delta, is the setting of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the Best Picture-nominated debut film from director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin. The film, which tells the story of Hushpuppy (Oscar-nominee Quvenzhané Wallis , a five-year-old girl with a vivid imagination who lives in this hard-scrabble, heavily isolated community with her hot-tempered and sickly father, Wink (Dwight Henry, more on him later), tries to dig into the lives of these characters, but the film quickly devolves into an uneven mishmash of Maurice Sendak-inspired fantasy and stark realism, with some deeply troublesome elements concerning the portrayal of the lives these characters lead.
There are some things this movie does quite well. Hushpuppy, with is an ideal conduit into this world. “Beasts” take place around the time Katrina decimated nearby New Orleans, and the muddy, broken-down world Hushpuppy is conveyed quite well by Zeitlin’s constantly roving camera. You sometimes forget that the Bathtub is part of America, with it being so thoroughly cut off from the rest of civilization. The childlike wonder that defines Hushpuppy’s worldview is fascinating, to a point. Her imagination goes into overdrive when her teacher tells her that the polar ice caps may melt, and mystical beasts that once roamed the land will be free once again. Hushpuppy becomes obsessed with making her mark on the world, and sets out to learn more about herself, specifically the mother she never knew.
The film is quite beautiful to look at, capturing the crude beauty of the Bathtub, and Hushpuppy, wonderfully portrayed by Wallis, is one of the most engaging and natural child protagonists I’ve seen in a long time. But unfortunately, the filter by which “Beasts” presents her world and tells her story only goes so far; specifically for two reasons. The film does become quite repetitive, with Hushpuppy’s voiceover narration (shades of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”), providing abstract musings on the state of the world and expressing her desire to be remembered by everyone long after she is gone. A film doesn’t need a plot to be compelling (ex. “Lost in Translation,” Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”) but it does need to provide some variation on its core themes. “Beasts” doesn’t do nearly enough of that, and the film turns into a somewhat empty excercise in admittedly impressive cinematic style.
The other thing that crippled the film for me, is how it doesn’t address the problems that come with living in the Bathtub. These people refuse basic health care, refuse to leave their homes after a destructive storm hits, and are proud of living in thoroughly dilapidated homes. I tried like hell to ignore any and all sociopolitical reactions to this movie, but I just couldn’t do it. By using Hushpuppy as the conduit for the story, it allows some of the more disparaging aspects of this world to get off Scot-free. In a post-“Wire” world, TV and film can’t afford to ignore these kinds of problems anymore. Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” did a great job in bridging the fantasy world with the horrors of the real world without compromising the vividness or integrity of either of them.
But it’s the character of Wink, Hushpuppy’s father, that pushed “Beasts” past the point of no return. Wink is almost always drunk, he forces Hushpuppy to live in another house and is reluctant to let her stay with him when she burns her house down, and he constantly hits and berates her. There could’ve been an opportunity for nuance and grace notes to help us understand why Wink is the way he is, but newcomer Dwight Henry gives a performance that is so forced and overbearing that it’s actually difficult to watch him onscreen. We are forced to watch this man abuse his child, thus making the emotional epiphany between him and Hushpuppy that comes at the end of the film ring so hollow that you can hear it echo.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” does announce Benh Zeitlin as a filmmaker to watch, but this movie is to much of a mixed bag to embrace. It wants to show how a child copes with their rural surroundings, but as the falsely triumphant ending that does a disservice to the reality of this universe proves, it’s not just Hushpuppy who sees her world as a giant fairy tale.