Every year, a handful of smaller films come out that rely on critical acclaim to find an audience. As a critic, you walk a fine line between trying to help those smaller, worthy films find an audience, and making sure the films you champion are worthy, to keep from burning your audience and becoming the boy who cried wolf, making film critics even more irrelevant than we already are. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a critic-bait film that’s already won a Camera D’or at Cannes, Best Narrative Film at the LA Film Festival, and been nominated for Best Film at the Independent Spirit Awards. Here’s why the critics whiffed on this one.
As an MGMT video, Beasts of the Southern Wild is pretty good. It’s got soaring music, pretty cinematography, fantastical imagery that borrows heavily from Where the Wild Things Are, an impossibly cute little girl, and deep south swamp locations exotic to urbanized yankees like me (“look, crawdaddies! Isn’t that a funny word, Brent? ‘Crawdaddies?'”). But if you can see past the craft, this tale of deep south swamp hobos and feral children that eat cat food has all the depth of one of those Levis slam poetry commercials. I thought we weren’t supposed to fall for the Magic Negro and the Noble Savage anymore? Yet here it is, a whole movie full of them, plus folksy Cajuns who can’t open their mouths without homespun crypticisms aw shucksing their way out.
“Hushpuppy” (yes, the main character’s name is Hushpuppy) is the adorable little black girl in question (it really cannot be overstated how cute she is), played by spell-check nightmare Quvenzhané Wallis when she was just five years old (an impressive performance, to be sure). Hushpuppy lives with her daddy beyond the levees in a swampy section of rural Louisiana called “The Bathtub.” Or as Hushpuppy narrates it to us, “I’m recording it for the scientists in the future. In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”
As it turns out, that’s also pretty much the entire plot. Hushpuppy originally delivers this assertion as she’s drawing on the inside of a cardboard box in which she’s hiding after setting her trailer/hovel/shanty on fire while cooking up a can of cat food on the stove. At the time, you wonder, how would future kids know about Hushpuppy or her father? Because of drawings on the cardboard box that’s about to burn? I interpreted the reason as “because of this movie,” the id of a film so preoccupied with its own importance that it believes schoolchildren will be discussing it a million years from now.
Hushpuppy’s daddy is this sort of rural human dung beetle who’s dying (more on that later) and drinks too much, but exists in a state of spiritual richness because of his closeness to the land. He lives amongst a band of fellow rascals who don’t need jobs or money or possessions, because why bother with that when you can just dig in the dirt and get drunk and eat crabs with your hands all day? (It sounds great, I admit) The whole first half of the film is basically that scene in Titanic where Rose leaves her stuffy old first class soirée so Jack can show her some real fun down in steerage, where Irishmen and negroes drink frosty brews and dance jigs to lively flute music. OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS, POVERTY IS SO MUCH FUN! WHY HAVEN’T WE COME DOWN HERE BEFORE?!
You could argue that what happens next in Beasts of the Southern Wild de-glamorizes the life of the mud-poor have-nots, but the scene where Hushpuppy’s daddy and his band of primitivist troglodytes lead a cargo-cult raid on the evil levee that keeps their swamp flooded and the city dry (can someone check the science on this, please?) makes the implication pretty clear: Society = hollow, inevitable. Swamp people = romantic, doomed.