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.
Screenwriter Lucy Alibar originally wrote Beasts of the Southern Wild as a play called Juicy and Delicious, which was about an 11-year-old white boy and his father in southern Georgia, where she grew up. In adapting it to a 6-year-old black girl in the Louisiana swamps, Queens-bred director Benh Zeitlin turns it into a maudlin exercise in cultural tourism. Juicy has been described as “a boy who feels like the whole world is collapsing as his father is dying,” and if that’s true, Zeitlin gets it backwards, setting up the collapsing world before the dying father, so that Hushpuppy’s dad getting sick feels like a symptom of the place instead of the cause for it, and a cliché symptom at that, of a place Zeitlin doesn’t seem too familiar with beyond the usual stereotypes in the first place. How do I know it’s cliché? I explained the premise of the movie to my podcast co-host, Brendan, and he described an entire scene from Beasts almost perfectly without ever having seen it. How stereotypical? Hushpuppy’s dad tells her the story of how she was conceived the day he watched her topless (now dead, of course) mom kill a gator with a shotgun. (*eye roll*) Later, Hushpuppy visits a whorehouse/restaurant, where all the whores wear lacy white dresses and slow dance to smokey jazz music while eating fried gator tail, a place which I’m pretty sure hasn’t existed since the antebellum days. There’s also a scene where Hushpuppy’s dad teaches her how to fish for catfish with his bare hands, and catches one without even getting out of the boat, barely getting his elbow wet. Who knew noodling was so easy?!? I hate to sound like Holden Caufield here, but PHONY PHONY PHONY PHONY.
When you live in the city and you buy your meat wrapped in cellophane and styrofoam, it’s a pleasant fantasy to believe that people who sleep in the dirt and gut their own dinners are possessed of a spiritual richness that you’ve always felt deep down you’re somehow lacking. It’s also a really old fantasy. Like, REALLY old. It’s fine to recognize that feeling in yourself and write about it (human condition and all), but it’s a bit presumptuous to apply the antidote to the mysterious “other” just because you don’t know them that well.
Also, call me cynical, but watching po’ black characters deliberately misuse words and grammar in folksy phrases written by white people (“cavemens,” for example) feels hokey at best and offensive at worst. Keep in mind, I knew nothing about the filmmakers before I watched this film. It just reeked of theater kid fantasy, and I’ve seen enough Hurricane Katrina narratives written by liberal arts students in New York to recognize this as one. Art students be lovin’ Katrina narratives like fictional Cajuns love crawdads, you all.
Beasts is beautiful and the filmmakers are young, and may still have some great work in them yet, and you’ll hear lots of people describe Beasts as “poetic.” But Beasts has a lot of that kind of poetry that’s not the work of someone employing a non-linear form to more closely illustrate their thought process as they grope towards meaning, it’s more like someone using poetry to obfuscate a story that wouldn’t work as prose, because there just isn’t much there. A lot of swamp-jazz hocus pocus and gumbo mumbo jumbo, so to speak.
The kicker for me was the scene where Hushpuppy swims her way out to a boat captained by a friendly stranger who, wouldn’t you know it, is full of all sorts of profound advice.
HUSHPUPPY: Which way we goin’?
OLD MAN BAYOU: It don’t matter, baby. This boat’ll take you exactly where you need to be. It’s that kinda boat. ….Wanna chicken biscuit? It’s good for you. I’ve been eating these all my life. (*emotional music starts to swell*) I keep the wrappers in the boat, because they remind me of who I was when I eat each one. The smell makes me feel cohesive.
Get it? His identical empty chicken wrappers remind him of who he was. Pass me one of those chicken wrappers, Pierre, I need to hork in it.