Having 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