Having been nominated for 4 Oscars, does Benh Zeitlin’s drama with slight fantasy elements Beasts of the Southern Wild really deserve the attention?
Beasts of the Southern Wild
(USA 2012, director: Benh Zeitlin)
Six-year old Hushpuppy is thrown into a world where her father can’t protect her anymore against the sudden flood and prehistoric creatures who come from the melting ice caps.
I’ve always been careful with movies being hyped and praised by critics and even if there are some deserving to win an Oscar, this one definitely isn’t. I was also suspicious that it was featured at the Fantasy Filmfest 2013 as the centerpiece, as I didn’t find the trailer that captivating. And that’s exactly what I got.
Now, I’m not against arthouse or indie movies per se. In fact, there are very good ones out there, like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant where not much happens, but which still tell an important story without clichés. Unfortunately, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the epiphany of pretentious filmmaking. The often shaky camera is nauseating, trying to give a sense of exhilaration in celebration scenes or trying to evoke emotions in sad moments of the story. It simply doesn’t work.
Then there’s the plot itself and the characters. An alcoholic father the dear, cute daughter loves so much despite his being torn between abuse and caring protection, has been seen so many times before. The rest of the cast is portrayed as outcasts, rebellious to the point that they become laughable with their screaming fits. What’s even worse: they’re instantly forgettable. Despite trying to have a sense of community, none of the characters have any redeeming qualities that make them relatable or sympathetic and in turn become little else than pathetic in the process.
What also doesn’t work is the integration of some fairytale fantasy elements. There’s nothing new about a child being told stories of the past, and combining history and fiction, past and present isn’t very original, either. Having this movie as a centerpiece of the Fantasy Filmfest was also a big mistake, as the fantasy parts are very sparsely used, so sparsely in fact that it’s difficult to find them in the mud of social commentary. The metaphorical comparison between people and beasts of a world long gone by is also so pretentiously and pointlessly used that the final confrontation of the girl with the herd is the pinnacle of ridiculousness. Sure, one can see the whole plot as a fantasy fairytale story, but having the “monsters” take a backseat and showing the “civilized” world colliding with the wild doesn’t make for a very exciting tale.
And now we come to the often praised “acting” abilities of the small girl. I’m very well aware of her age, but to be honest, I’ve seen better examples. It doesn’t make for great acting to have someone read lines of a script as an off commentator and it certainly doesn’t work to have her scream to show her newly won self-respect and self-reliance. Simply the worst kind of characterization is to have a main protagonist who’s either crying, screaming or trying to say profound things that are just there for the sake of it.
The less said about the boring plot, the better, as there’s rarely any suspense. Only the last scene of a dying character could be felt as drama, but even this one is destroyed by an over-the-top “we defy anything” ending. Some people have said this is a racist movie, some that it’s a visual masterpiece (just look at imdb or Amazon). I say it’s a boring 96 minutes that feel like 3 hours and after which nothing positive remained in my mind.
This is the stuff schoolbook discussions are made of. This is the stuff people can hold against loud and noisy blockbuster movies. But to be honest, subtlety doesn’t necessarily have to mean a movie in which nothing happens. This is Beasts of the Southern Wild. An instant classic… failure. Better watch the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. It might not have the whole race issue and social commentary, but at least it’s arthouse filmmaking done right and also suitable for other audiences who don’t use the words “masterpiece” and “stellar acting” in every sentence, while worshipping everything indie, contemplative and not-Hollywood-ness.
Score: 1/10 (for the one memorable character who collects chicken snack wrappings)
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