Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild [Updated]

220px-Beats-of-the-southern-wild-movie-posterHaving seen the preview for Beasts of the Southern Wild (now in theaters) a while back, I was not particularly drawn to go see it.  However, I was in the mood for a little different flavor tonight, so I opted to.  This movie is about a young impoverished black girl living with her father in a swampy community cut off from mainland Louisiana by a levee.  As such, they live in their own independent nation of sorts.  A great premise for a movie, I think.

Unfortunately, unless you want to see people living in ultimate rural squalor, I’d say skip this one.  The first big problem of this movie is that there is no compelling dramatic storyline.  These folks live in squalor, but they relish it.  They are quite content to live in filth and eat giant mounds of raw shellfish, and there is nothing to stop them from doing so.  Well — this is where the movie attempts some drama — there are threats from nature and outside to interfere with their lifestyle, but it’s all a bit hum-drum.  I’ll contrast this movie with The Visitor (2007), a wonderful little drama where the threat of deportation hangs over the head of a sympathetic main character.  Here, a sense of heart-rending upheaval, that feeling of tension which runs through any good drama, went missing for me, despite the filmmakers’ attempts to the contrary.

The second major problem was the little six-year-old girl Hushpuppy at the center of the story — supposedly, they could have made more or less exactly the same movie but with a more compelling central character, and produced a better end result.  Hushpuppy was fine, but did not captivate.  I’d say she half-captivated, as did the movie.

I think Beasts had the opportunity to be something truly great — a post-apocalyptic, grittily realistic tale set on an island of humanity where survival of the fittest is the rule, à la Mad Max — as one possible example.  But the story lacked.  A theme of the film, I think in lieu of actual plot, was that humans are surrounded by wild creatures, and that people take their place in this wild world, and that Hushpuppy should be the heroic figure to conquer her universe.  The film, and Hushpuppy, preach a little self-importance at you to drive home the wild-creature theme.  But this effort too falls short and feels like a band-aid on the story.

Beasts is not without merit.  Performances are fine, even spirited and occasionally humorous.  And the movie does give an unprecedented look into this unique community and its denizens.  But a good documentary on real people who live in such places would have been more interesting.

With a heroic little girl taming the wildness around her, Beasts of the Southern Wild came off to me like a failed Whale Rider.  5/10.

Update: Now 6/10

8 thoughts on “Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild [Updated]

  1. This is the first critical comment I have seen about Beasts of the Southern WIld, I am am glad that somebody else feels the way I do about it. Apart from the unrelenting poverty, I was struck by it’s similarity to Whalerider (a truly great movie), to the extent I would acuse it of plagerism
    – Young girl trying to impress disinterested father figure, who is dealing with problems affecting his community’s existence
    – Girl having fantasies regarding ancient mythical creatures
    – Denoument of movie having the girl bravely encounter the mythical beasts come to life, and father figure witnessing and admiring her bravery
    – Movie ending with girl becoming a leader or figurehead of the community, thereby saving it.
    These are just the main ones, there are many more.

    • Thank you for your comments. I agree that there are a number storyline similarities to Whale Rider, though these are two very different movies. In defense of Beasts, it does open up a fascinating new world that cinemagoers have never seen before, and it is remarkable in that regard. The problem is this new world is all it has to offer, and the novelty of it wears off soon enough. It does not follow up with a story worthy of, or as original as, its beginning strengths.

      In any case, it has received wide and lavish praise, including as we learned this morning a number of Oscar nominations including Best Picture, though it is certain not to take that grandest prize. This should not be surprising given the Academy’s predilection to recognize marginally good films.

      As time has passed since watching this movie, I have occasionally had warm thoughts toward it — it is after all a rather unforgettable movie that sticks with you for a while. As such, I feel compelled to revise my original opinion up a tick to 6/10, a barely passing recommendation.

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