It’s been the toast of the town since it first bowed at Sundance in January, having enjoyed a meteoric wave of plaudits ever since; Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild – adapted from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious – is slice-of-life cinema to a tee, and while it feels very authentic, its stronger elements are played-off against a cynically self-conscious script, which fails to cohere into an emotionally gratifying whole.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a 6-year-old girl, living with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a southern American community referred to as “The Bathtub”. However, when Wink is stricken with a debilitating blood disorder, Hushpuppy must slowly come to learn to survive on her own, dealing with the severe flooding of the region alongside day-to-day sustenance. Through her singular imagination, we obtain a unique, exaggerated perspective of a child coping with the enormity of having to fend for themselves.
Troublesome from its first moments is the film’s overly cutesy, achingly self-aware dialogue, careful to look over its shoulder before speaking, if girded by en entirely unconscious, even brilliant performance by Wallis as Hushpuppy. An early problem with Zeitlin’s film is its evident if unfulfilled ambition; the juxtaposition of Hushpuppy’s emotionally fraught upbringing with events such as the melting of the polar ice caps feels insubstantial and tangential. The film’s depiction of Aurochs – ancient creatures who come to represent Hushpuppy’s emotional and existential turmoil – feels particularly rough-hewn, thrown higgledy-piggledy into a film that, at least at first, appeared to value authenticity over bombast. Meanwhile, the precious dialogue feels concocted largely to enrapture middle-class frequenters of the art-house, who otherwise would not be the least bit interested in the protagonist’s plight if not for the opportunity to dutifully pat themselves on the back.
Its post-Katrina context is unavoidable if at the same time stirring and potent, heightened by Ben Richardson’s marvellous cinematography. One of the opening shots, in which Hushpuppy runs through a field brandishing a pair of sparklers – an image which has been frequently used in posters – is simply unforgettable. Similarly, Dan Romer and Zeitlin’s score is joyfully ethereal, making the harsh reality of its narrative shortcomings all the more disappointing. Enormous levels of conceit betray marvellous performances and evocative cinematography, but Beasts of the Southern Wild just about does the job.
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