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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

This faux-naif debut feature is more advertising than cinema.

Benh Zeitlin's faux-naif debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild trades in quasi-folkloric whimsy, fantastical contraptions, and a very slick and deliberate sort of visual roughness. Shot and cut like one of Weiden + Kennedy's pseudo-populist Levi's ads (with several apparent borrowings from a 2009 commercial directed for the firm by Cary Fukunaga, who worked on Zeitlin's short Glory at Sea the year before), it looks and moves like an ad agency creative's idea of an American fairy tale. It's not without its pleasures: a uniformly strong cast of non-professionals, clever Emir Kusturica-aping production design, a pretty good scene set in a waterfront brothel, and a damn fine opening title card. (Also, on a more basic level, I appreciate Zeitlin's apparent fetish for women's thighs.) Still, the language Beasts of the Southern Wild speaks isn't really the language of cinema—it's the language of cinema as it's been co-opted by smart, arty advertising in the last two decades, and the film's damning central flaw has to do with what exactly Zeitlin and his associates are trying to sell.  

Beasts is set in the Bathtub, a fictional, cutesy-poo impoverished rural community in Louisiana, and is told mostly from the perspective of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year old who lives under the extremely lax supervision of her irritable, alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry). Hushpuppy also narrates the film, an effect that's meant to recall Linda Manz's voice-over in Days of Heaven but more often than not recalls Kids Say the Darnedest Things. Over the course of the film, the Bathtub gets flooded in a cataclysmic storm that resembles Hurricane Katrina (but isn't Hurricane Katrina), and the community's holdouts—including Hushpuppy and Wink, who is dying of some vague illness—are forcibly evacuated by government aid workers.   

This is the big reveal, where Beasts  of the Southern Wild finally unveils its central theme / product, complete with slogan ("I gotta take care of mine"). The people of the Bathtub don't need outside help; their community is enough for them to get by. (Note: Beasts provides absolutely no sense of the Bathtub as a functioning community; all we learn is that its residents enjoy fireworks and getting drunk.) They march triumphantly together to the sound of Zeitlin and Dan Romer's cloying, grating indie score.  

Here is that old American self-sufficiency, that "freedom to be free" and live your own way nonsense that it also hawked by the Levi's ads the film so often resembles ("Go Work," the commercials say—though not at Levi's, of course, since the company moved all of its manufacturing to cheaper, less-regulated places two decades ago). The problem is that the Bathtub and its people—every one of them well-acted but underwritten—are not self-sufficient; the only right they gain by heroically refusing outside assistance is the right to be poor. (Note: Zeitlin is not poor.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild is selling a fantasy, though it's not a fantasy about a little girl who cooks her dinners with a blowtorch or about magical alligator meat or friendly tugboat captains who collect fried chicken wrappers or prehistoric creatures emerging from Arctic ice. It's a fantasy of Hurricane Katrina—the imagery of which Beasts appropriates whenever it's convenient—as a natural disaster that brought out the best in people, rather than a man-made catastrophe that revealed the worst aspects of a society. Ironically, the film's FEMA stand-ins seem to be reasonably good at their jobs; it's the Bathtub's residents' decision to weather the storm and then later to return without aid. Beasts pretends to be celebrating gumption and resolve, but what it's ultimately selling is stubbornness and isolationism. There is a word for films like this: bullshit

Wow, this is vicious. I wonder if you are reacting to the film itself or the heaps of praise that the film has been receiving. On that count I can agree, but it sounds like you are accusing the people of this film with the dreaded “liberal guilt” label but also saying that their film is also a libertarian parable. Very weird. This seems more of an editorial than a review.
Interesting review, but I get the feeling you are not very familiar with the Louisiana bayou – it’s another world. Heck, even New Orleans is another world.
I really love Ignatiy’s reviews even when I disagree with them. I think what gets people up in arms about a review like this ones that it leaves very little room for dissent, because to express a conflicting opinion isn’t to have a different aesthetic evaluation but to be morally “wrong.” Still, I think it’s up to people who have seen it to articulate why Ignatiy’s perception of the film is incorrect. I have not yet seen BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, but this review makes me very interested to see it, one way or another.
A good point, Anders, but on the other handle aesthetics are moral, it’s just most film reviewers never talk about them in those terms.
I’m glad Iggy could articulate what exactly bothered me about this movie, because I couldn’t. And he’s exactly right. Emperor’s new clothes, y’all. Should have known in advance, though. Sundance is a pap factory.
Well this review is about to catch some serious shit.
I am curious how much I will like this myself. Everything I’ve read about it makes it seem like a mash-up of Malick, George Washington, and Where the Wild Things Are. But then, I do love all three of those things.
Great review - a rare kind of bird in today’s landscape of film criticism: written with a political mind. Thank you.
Born, raised, and currently residing in Baton Rouge. I’d only heard of the film vaguely, but seeing the trailer for the first time made me quite irritated. I’m tired of my state being co-opted by outsiders for its supposed wackiness and magic (True Blood, etc). The reality: Louisiana—Nola and further south included—is only marginally as eccentric as it has been portrayed by the American film industry. Zeitlin is from NYC. Another parochial NYC film may seem unnecessary, but at least it would be more honest of him.
Well I personally thought the film was absolutely fantastic. Currently my favorite film of the year. I think this review kinda missed the point (or at least the one I derived) of “Beasts”.
“People, people! Some so-called filmmakers have actually made commercials! COMMERCIALS!!!” There is a word for criticism like this: “bullshit.”
This shallow review highlights everything “Beasts” is not. With provocative and presumptuous aplomb it denigrates the film as commercial-driven and advertiser friendly, suggesting its a complete and total sell-out which in our culture of sell-outs is a shocking accusation. “Beasts” is a weird fantastical apocalyptic tale of the end of the world, told from the point of view of a child. It’s like a children’t book. And it’s based on a book. The movie never means to cast a vote on Katrina, the people who stayed, FEMA or any other nonsense the author reads into it falsely. That’s politics, this film is folk. I really don’t understand why it’s drawn so much bile from the reviewer. To act as the mighty Iggy himself and write presumptuously and angrily, I would suggest that this non-wealthy, over-educated misanthropic dude had an unhappy childhood and CLEARLY wetted his bed. For shame, for shame! There’s a word for reviews like this: masturbatory.
Ignatiy isn’t critiquing the filmmakers for having worked on commercials, but the film itself for selling rather than telling, which is, indeed, a scourge of the age, ported over from advertising. Still, I’ma give this film a shot. You never know. Indie darlings like CHOP SHOP and WINTER’S BONE had me crying “bullshit,” yet I fell hard for the artificial sweeteners in BALLAST, GOODBYE SOLO and THE FIRST GRADER. A soulful lens flare here, a sad waif kicking pebbles there, and somehow one is taken in. Anyway, I violently disagree with those who say a kid flick is above or below politics. There’s politics in everything. There’s politics in E.T. and Yo Gabba Gabba, just like there’s politics on the playground.
great article Ignatiy thank you for it.
Since i watched the trailer i was like, this had to be shot by jason russell, the so called Kony “activist” and/or shot by a commercials director who usually don’t make films, they make long commercials. After reading the article it makes complete sense not to spend a dime on it. Thanks!
Ignatiiy, it’s great to have you (& Mubi) looking at film from a moral, ethical & political context (frankly, I don’t see why criticism, post-Daney, should do anything else). Pointing to the Levi’s commercial is more than informative. I’d love to see Tony Scott, David Fincher, and Michael Mann films reviewed in the same (moral, ethical, political) context.
BRAVO!!! A link to this review showed up under my own review of this atrocity (I hesitate to call it a review since I walked out after 20 minutes):
@ Harry Rossi: “Well I personally thought the film was absolutely fantastic. Currently my favorite film of the year. I think this review kinda missed the point (or at least the one I derived) of “Beasts”.” What then, was the point? I haven’t seen movie yet, so I can’t speak to it. Not sure if I will. I was guessing, once I saw the trailer and found out that the director is a well-off NYC kid with academic parents who moved to NO for a bit prior to making the film. I know that sounds sorta bad, but while the movie sounds visually pleasing, I don’t go for “magic minority” fantasies written by white people. I didn’t like George Washington either. Honestly, I think people see that slow-paced, pan-shot, sparse dialogue, Altman/Malick-derived style (which is super pleasing), and then just assume that the movie must be good. but like I said, i haven’t seen the movie.
@Louis Proyect – I’m about to read your review, but I just want to say that it’s not magical realism that’s bad, it’s “glib wish-fulfillment magical realism that fails to grapple with real life” that needs to die.
“Beasts provides absolutely no sense of the Bathtub as a functioning community; all we learn is that its residents enjoy fireworks and getting drunk.” What about the part where the community bands together to build the elevated dwelling following the storm or the community’s “doctor”. The richest part of this review is when you attack the director’s privileged economic background. Kind of the pot calling the kettle black, eh Ignatiy?
When you say “part” what you really mean is “montage” which is another one of the film’s stylistic shorthands because it is unable to flesh out the world / scenario it’s narrating to the audience. It would never show how a community works (or doesn’t) like a John Ford film, it has to do it in shorthand sketches because the material is so thin and underdeveloped.
Really cannot wait to see this.
Though I found this review refreshing since the film has pretty much received unanimous praise (dissenting opinions are always a welcome read), I didn’t really interpret the message to represent “that old American self-sufficiency.” It’s about living under your own terms. It took many years for some Katrina refugees to return to their home. Plainly speaking they were not allowed. I feel like Beasts comments on this travesty. Communities around the world affected by climate change will be displaced, lose their homes, and culture – this is the crux of the narrative.
“like a John Ford film”….which ones deployed ‘magical realism’?
I agree completely with Mr. Vishnevetsky. One of the worst films of the year. Every adult in this movie is an abusive, selfish, filthy, drunken redneck.
The film looks really crap, but I have to see it.
How could Ebert possibly have employed this guy?

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