Anyone who has ever harbored the aspiration of becoming a film director will have a hard time not being blown away by Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” as it rolls through the projector gate. Even though the first credit on the movie states that it was made by Court 13, a collective of young filmmakers, it is difficult not to view as an auteur work because the singularity of its vision suggests authorship, a master conductor making sure that each element is in perfect harmony. From the opening shots, the rich, unified style–fragile handheld cinematography, a robust score, lyrically flowing edits–is overwhelming. I nearly cried 10 minutes in, not because of anything going on in the movie, but because of the sheer forcefulness of what I construed as wholly Zeitlin’s vision, a vision that the wannabe director deep inside of me envied.
A week later, now that I’ve let the movie simmer in my mind, I realize that the sense of emotion and admiration I felt was not genuine, but founded on conceit. It would be one thing if Zeitlin had built “Beasts of the Southern Wild” solely as formalism, squarely focused on technical elements, but that’s not the case. Instead, he is trying to tell a human story about a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her terminally-ill father (Dwight Henry), residents of an impoverished, self-sustaining outer-delta Louisiana community called the Bathtub, trying to survive an epic storm. As such, Zeitlin’s look-at-me style of filmmaking, loaded with montages and vague Hushpuppy voice-overs that portend to carry dense meaning, does nothing but distract from what he sets out to do: bring the viewer closer to the characters.
It would seem that said distraction was deliberate, designed to keep the viewer from recognizing the lack of narrative depth inherent in the material and offset it with engineered emotional cues. On a content level, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is full of suggestive symbols, but nary a fully formed thought, let alone a central thesis. There are, for instance, sequences of the “Aurochs,” prehistoric creatures who once again roam the earth after the ice-caps melt, interspersed throughout. These animals could signify a lot of things–from the perils of global warming to the untamed collective psyche of the residents of Bathtub–but Zeitlin never cares to pursue this in a direct fashion, or at least infer why the Aurochs are relevant to Hushpuppy. The latter issue should have been particularly important, given that one read on the film is that it is entirely an expression of Hushpuppy’s imagination. Instead, Zeitlin presumes that if his aesthetic and tone seem sophisticated enough, then viewers will accept that the symbols themselves are sophisticated, when in reality they are merely the laziest kind of abstract art: that which the artist tells the viewer to “make what you want of,” sans any other clues.
Further, once one recognizes the disingenuous reasons for Zeitlin’s style, it’s difficult not to question the movie’s underlying sense of morality. The highly impressionistic storytelling of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” suggests that it is a sort of fairy-tale, wherein the narrative should not be read literally and the emotions should be the viewer’s paramount focus. But if this heavy style is merely smoke-and-mirrors and there is no intended underlying meaning beyond what the viewer imagines, then that calls into question some of the cruelties that Zeitlin depicts. For instance, in one scene, poor Hushpuppy has no proper food to eat, so she fries up a can of cat-food and chows down. If Zeitlin had used this as a symbol to express a specific thought, then that would have been one thing. But there is no specific thought apparent and as a result, the viewer must take it at face value as a commentary on the squalid living conditions of impoverished Louisianans. As such, it’s hard to forgive the obtuse, unrealistic depiction of a little girl forced to eat cat-food to quell her hunger — which is at best an amateurish attempt to garner audience sympathy and at worst an inexcusable oversimplification of the very real issue of poverty in America. The occasionally abusive behavior of Hushpuppy’s father, which also adheres to stereotypes of the “untamed black man,” is similarly questionable.
The storm that functions as the centerpiece of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is obviously meant to evoke Hurricane Katrina, but again, Zeitlin seems to be more interested in mere suggestion rather than deliberate messaging. Despite the radically different filmmaking style, Zeitlin’s execution of the storm itself–which finds Hushpuppy’s father trying to fight the rain, shooting his gun into the sky and yelling at it as if engaged in battle–is not all that different from the climax of a bloated summer blockbuster in principle. Sure, the flurry of activity evokes emotions in the viewer, but without any deliberate sense of meaning behind the action, are these emotions really legitimate? The sequence is certainly visually and aurally titillating, but the same could be said of pornography.
The saving grace of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis, who is wonderfully feisty and forges meaning in the material when none is there, particularly during interactions with her father and in a dreamlike third-act sequence where she meets a woman who may or may not be her absent mother. The silver-screen has never seen a six-year-old girl deliver this strong a performance — and the fact that Wallis has never acted before makes her accomplishment all the more impressive. Unfortunately, she cannot hold the movie up all on her own, and the inauthenticity of Zeitlin’s approach allows the rest to crumble around her. That said, Zeitlin clearly has the technical chops to make a great film some day, but before he can utilize them properly, he needs to find something real to say.