At Sundance this year, first-time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin won praise for his imaginative fantasy tale set against the backdrop of a Post-Katrina New Orleans, while his 6-year-old ingénue Quvenzhané Wallis was the talk of the festival. The accolades carried on through Cannes, where the feisty feature was heralded in particular for its majestic cinematography. Unfortunately, outside of the rarified air of these prestigious festivals, Beasts of the Southern Wild maintains its eerie beauty, but feels frustratingly thin in story and character.
Off the coast of Louisiana lays a forgotten island community that is lovingly called the Bathtub by its residents, because of its tendency to flood. Deemed too dangerous by modern society, the Bathtub is filled with miscreants and misfits. Among them is a scrappy and wild-haired little girl called Hushpuppy (Wallis) who knows well the dangers of this life. She's schooled about the importance of being self-sufficient, a lesson hammered home by tales of massive horned beasts called aurochs, which long ago roamed the land, ruled the Earth, and gobbled up children in front of their helpless parents.
To live in the Bathtub, you must be a survivor, able to find food and high ground when the going gets rough. Raised by her alcoholic and tormented father Wink (Dwight Henry), things are often rough for Hushpuppy, who soothes herself by imagining the mother she never knew cooing advice and lullabies. But even this tenuous stability is threatened when Wink returns home after days of being MIA, and carries with him troubling signs of sickness. Before Hushpuppy can find a cure for what ails him, a terrible storm brews that forces the pair to hunker down. As the rain falls heavy and hard, and the floodwaters rise, Hushpuppy is forced to face her father's impending demise.
Established as a place where people revel in their freedom from convention, drinking, dancing and celebrating with a reckless abandon, the world of the Bathtub is totally enchanting. With its ram-shackled shacks, flocks of dirt-smudged children, free-range fauna, and wild-eyed adults it's a Never Land with an expiration date, threatened by a levy constructed by mainlanders that assures the Bathtub will one day be sunk for good. But in the meantime, it's the perfect backdrop for a story of feral childhood. Unfortunately, the intoxicating wonder of Bathtub is repeatedly abandoned for less intriguing territories, and so Beasts of the Southern Wild is brought low by a meandering plotline and plodding pacing.
Part of the problem is that Hushpuppy and her quest are never quite clear. A lonely child who yearns for parental affection, she wanders from one source to the next without any apparent logic. As he attempts to prepare Hushpuppy to be her own father, Wink sneers at all things girly. So to impress him she dutifully obeys his commands to growl, "beast" a crab, noodle a catfish, and display her "guns." But as his health worsens, Hushpuppy sets off on an impromptu search for her long-missing mother along with a fleet of orphaned Bathtub girls who follow her without question or explanation. Because her tie to her father is so conflicted, it's difficult to follow her reasoning here. Then comes a string of unbelievable plot points that lead to a final confrontation where Hushpuppy's fantasy becomes a visually striking but confounding and unearned reality.
Sadly, most of Hushpuppy's character is forged through her overwrought voiceover that pervades much of the film. It's a screenwriting crutch which attempts to infuse this child protagonist with a rich inner life. But the more it's used, the more it's clear how dependent the film and Wallis's performance are on its laborious explanations. Much of Wallis's screentime is made up of lingering close-ups of her blank countenance, which viewers must project emotion or motive onto, as Wallis displays none. In moments of rage, panic and despair, her performance is strong, beautifully capturing the feral and fickle nature of youth with a fittingly wild and raw energy. But neither Zeitlin's overzealous romanticizing of the young girl's almost other worldly beauty nor the mystical voiceover monologues make for a character as compelling as I'd expected from such a celebrated Sundance selection.
Ultimately, Beasts of the Southern Wild creates a fascinating world on the brink of elimination, yet lacks any sort of suspense because of a grim atmosphere and aimless plotting. To Zeitlin's credit, he makes glorious use of his locations and shows a lyrical sense of imagination blending the devastation of flooded Louisiana with the intimidating beasts of Bathtub legend. However, with such inventive visuals, it was distracting and disappointing to have so much depends on aggressively poetic voiceover. On top of that, putting so much of the film's success on the shoulders of a young non-actor is a big gamble that I don't feel paid off. In the end, as the waters receded, and the brass instruments blared out a triumphant final track, I was left feeling Beasts of the Southern Wild was shallow, offering little beyond they gritty-pretty style that made the battered fringe of New Orleans an exotic wild zone.