I respect Beasts of the Southern Wild and its director, Benh Zeitlin. The film’s 16mm photography is absolutely beautiful, and the effect work is unbelievable. The immense amount of time he spent finding Hushpuppy is worth it because Quvenzhané Wallis is an amazing breath of fresh air. She’s raw and honest. It never feels like she’s acting, she’s simply Hushpuppy. The film is insanely ambitious (maybe too ambitious?), especially for a feature debut. As a filmmaker, Beasts is very inspiring. The film is about characters Hollywood doesn’t acknowledge and is definitely saying something about the world we live in.
This is exactly what I want to do with my films. Zeitlin also moved to New Orleans and helped create a filmmaking community, Court 13. They made many shorts together and finally made this tiny film that went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2012. But after all of that, I didn’t love Beasts of the Southern Wild. I really wanted to, but I never made a real emotional connection. I know I’m in the minority here. Most people I respect truly loved the film (including our own Christina), and I’ve spent a couple of months trying to figure out why Beasts of the Southern Wild didn’t resonate with me.
In my opinion, Beasts of the Southern Wild was a little on the nose, especially when it came to its portrayal of poverty. There were these huge, broad strokes, of what poverty is. For example, there’s a scene where Hushpuppy boils dog food with a blow torch (a scene that made the majority of the audience laugh-something I’ll address in a little bit). This is a big, obvious indicator that screams, “These people are poor” and the film has too many moments like this. Which is frustrating because when Zeitlin just shows the characters in their setting it’s literally all we need to see.
His lack of subtlety and reliance on the nose imagery reveals the fact that he doesn’t truly know what this life is like. The issue pops up in other aspects of the film as well. The voice over tends to spell out the themes of the film instead of letting us figure it out ourselves. I found the use of the aurochs to be contrived and redundant. They literally pop up once every 20 minutes for no real reason until the end. The film didn’t need a metaphor and I felt it actually took away from the power of the film (SPOILER: even if that final confrontation was pretty incredible on a pure cinematic level END SPOILER).
Zeitlin’s lack of subtly also lead to some cheesy moments. When I originally saw the trailer I didn’t like the “Who’s the man!?” scene. I hoped it didn’t truly represent the film, and Fox Searchlight was just trying to get more people to see the film. Unfortunately the film has too many moments like this (I also disliked the “Beast it” scene). I think I understand why they’re there. Zeitlin is trying to show Hushpuppy and her father’s loving relationship, but I believe these scenes create some really problematic tonal issues.
It makes Beasts of the Southern Wild seem like a cute kids film when it’s really holding a mirror up to the world and trying to reveal what this kind of life is like. But I think a lot of people were confused as they watched the film. I already mentioned the dog food scene. The majority of the audience I saw the film with laughed at that scene and many other scenes they should not have laughed at. You can claim that’s because of the audiences lack of understanding but I believe it’s because the film has a muddy tone and doesn’t totally succeed in combining its social realist and magical realism styles.
I believe Zeitlin is going to be a great director. He’s great at creating powerful images that create intense, emotional connections, but I believe he made some mistakes as a director. His main mistake was casting the supporting roles. I understand why he chose the actors he did (they created a real community), but he really should have surrounded Quvenzhane Wallis with higher quality actors. The rest of the cast doesn’t match her intensity and brilliance, and the film suffers for it. I was taken out of the world any time someone besides her came in to frame, and it’s a shame because that kind of problem has nothing to do with story.
That said, I believe he has a lot of room to improve as a screenwriter. There were many points in the film where it was stagnate. I was kind of bored, and the film felt much longer than its 90 minute running time. I think the main issue was sometimes things would just happen without any connective tissue. A films connective tissue should be characters actions and decisions. These things should propel the story forward as much as possible, and every one should lead to the next. There are definitely moments where Beasts does this, but there are others where character decisions feel like the screenwriter decided it for them.
In the end, watching a film is subjective and not entirely intellectual. Most of you will watch this film and think I’m crazy or nit-picking. Many of you will watch this film and will decided my issues are meaningless because the film struck an emotional cord in you. My response? Good. I loved Zeitlin’s short, Glory at Sea, and for me that film had a lot of the same issues Beasts of the Southern Wild did, but for some reason it transcended them. I totally understand the intense emotional response people are having to this film. I just wanted to try to articulate my thoughts and feelings about the film.
When I saw the film and tweeted that I was dissapointed someone responded by saying, “You just didn’t feel cool enough at the screening.” This is not true at all, and a problematic response. I hope films can be discussed in a real way, instead of attacking each other. I think Beasts of the Southern Wild was a good film. I’m not trying to attack Benh Zeitlin, this film, or the people who love it. Most films have the exact same issues that I addressed here, including my own. I’m picky because I’m always trying to evolve as a film watcher and filmmaker. It allows me to determine what films I think are special. I highly suggest you see this film and determine how if makes you feel because here’s what I’ve discovered. If Beasts of the Southern Wild resonates with you, it’s going to resonate big time. (Sean’s Grade: B-/B)