There’s an old sports cliché (wait, there are clichés in sports?) that talks about teams that end up being better than you might suspect they should be if you just take a look at the individual players. It goes something like “they’re greater than the sum of their parts”. As sports clichés go, it’s actually a pretty descriptive little way to make the point that sometimes the ingredients in the stew bubble and cook and get really yummy. On the other hand sometimes, no matter how good the stuff you toss into the pot, things just sort of end being kind of OK. One of this year’s critical darlings, Beasts of the Southern Wild, has all the ingredients. But it just sort of ends up being kind of OK.
Don’t get me wrong. On a strictly thumbs up or thumbs down basis, Beasts gets the Arthur Fonzarelli. It’s just kind of a tentative thumb. I really wanted to like this movie will full on enthusiasm. Maybe my expectations were too high. If I go down the movie checklist, everything is in order. Acting? Check. It might be somewhat questionable how much professional “acting” a six year old can do. But it’s sort of irrelevant when a girl inhabits a role the way Quvenzhane Wallis takes on the central role of Hushpuppy. As the character in the film who acts as the catalyst and narrator for the story of a group of people living on the other side, in a water logged area of Louisiana swampland called the Bathtub, Wallis is largely what the film rises and falls on. And Dwight Henry, as Hushpuppy’s father Wink, is near perfect as a guy who is close to unhinged but still can see clearly when it’s time to love his daughter.
The cinematography is wonderful. There are some simply gorgeous shots of the wild areas out beyond the levees. There are equally gorgeous shots of the junked up trailers the inhabitants of the Bathtub use as homes, the hollowed out truck beds they use as boats, and the decrepit dock houses they use as a makeshift school. Director Benh Zeitlin does a good job framing scenes and guiding what was apparently a local crew of actors through his vision for the story. Zeitlin creates an otherworldly, fantastical feel to the picture. The people living in the Bathtub not only have no connection to the “outside” world, they don’t have any desire to connect. When a huge storm hits, floods the Bathtub to dangerous levels, and the authorities swoop in to evacuate the area, the folks from the other side have no humanity, and literally seem like aliens from another planet. In many ways, this movie is the antithesis of Prometheus, where the characters are arguably doomed by their desire to know what’s out there. In Beasts, the characters just want to be left alone. They literally want to bury their heads in the sand (or in this case the water).
And I think this is what ultimately leaves me feeling like I have to stop short of calling this a truly great movie. There is a lot to admire in the characters of the movie. They’re fighters. And I feel like sort of a party pooper saying this, but to me, the movie romanticizes way too much the idea that a whole group of people wants to stay isolated and teaches their kids to have no curiosity about the outside world. (On the other hand, to paraphrase Walter from the Big Lebowski’s take on the tenants of national socialism, at least it’s an ethos). There is a ton to recommend this movie. Hushpuppy is adorable. She’s feisty, she’s wise, she’s a true treasure of a character, one you will definitely remember in a very good way. Her dad, Wink, fighting off death, is a man that loves his daughter (although he doesn’t seem capable of really wanting more for her), and there’s nothing to dislike about that. There were moments in the film where I was truly taken by the photography. I have to admire a director that can lead a non-Hollywood cast to a film that is better than most movies you’ll see. So, Beasts is certainly not a movie I regret seeing. You should see it yourself. In the end, though, I’m just nagged by the message of isolation as a romantic idea. And that leaves Beasts of the Southern Wild as more of a basic, albeit satisfying meal instead of the four star gourmet I was hoping for.