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"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Review

One of the big shockers of this year's Academy Awards nominations was the quartet of nods (Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress) for Beasts of the Southern Wild, a little indie flick that took Cannes by storm. But the bigger shock is watching it with the knowledge that it's been showered with all the accolades because all I kept thinking was,"Are they high? This is a Best Picture?"

Beasts is the very slight and extremely aimless story about a little girl named Hushpuppy (an adorable Quvenzhané Wallis, who was 6 years old when this was filmed and is the youngest Best Actress nominee ever now at 9) living in conditions that can be fairly described as being several notches below squalor in the Gulf Coast podunk of The Bathtub (between Bedroom Heights and Beyondville?) with her erratic, troubled father; mom is dead, of course. Then there is a scene of revelry with the ethnically-mixed neighbors (old white people?), some talk of ancient monsters and melting ice caps, a storm which floods the 'Tub out of existence, shouting, dynamite, road trip (over water) on a magic boat filled with chicken biscuit wrappers to a floating dream brothel, death, the end. Or something like that. I think. Oh, there's a lot of shellfish. I'm allergic to the things, so I'd starve if I was in this movie.

I've been getting annoyed - OK, more annoyed - lately about the overhype of movies whose main trait is that they're "different" from the mainstream, homogenized pap excreted by the Hollywood pablum factory and if I was someone who was forced to sit through every rom-com and Adam Sandler movie as part of a critic gig, I'd probably be prone to moisten myself with joy at something, anything, that seems original. But while critics losing their minds is one thing, what's the Academy's excuse?

My problems began right off with director Benh Zeitlin - who is a 30-year-old white guy from Queens, in case you were wondering - and his jittery camera work. Hey, kids, it's not selling out to put the camera on sticks from time to time. It had a feel of what I imagine a Terrance Malick movie to be like (I've seen negative reviews that confirm this) and my constant internal monologue only shifted from saying, "What the heck is this about?" at the end when I was asking, "What the heck was that all about?!?" From wondering why social workers weren't interested in an effectively orphaned girl living on cat food stew to why being rescued from their inundated hovels was anathema to the locals to what the deal is with the giant horned magical beasts that apparently came from thawing glaciers and showed up on the bayou to...well, I don't rightly know. I guess global warming? (They don't look like ManBearPigs.)

Beasts has a lot of mood and detail like the boat made of a pickup truck bed lashed to pickle barrels, but very little characterization. I think part of the appeal to those who've bought into this thing is the utterly alien landscape of Bathtub. If you live in comfy urban surroundings, the exotic landscape and mystical pretensions must seem more spiritual than a Swamp People and Hillbilly Handfishing marathon, but in reality it's just elucidating why everyone hates white people. (The piece linked below has even harsher thoughts on the subject.)

Whether through selective editing and rigorous commands or some actually talent, Wallis is effective as Hushpuppy, never annoying, but never totally compelling; then again, there's little in the way of character to play. My girlfriend texted me that she should win the Oscar. She is incorrect in this judgement.

If I'd watched Beasts of the Southern Wild a couple of weeks ago, I may have had a mildly more favorable reaction to it. However, if its going to be playing with the big boys in the big show, we've got to judge it in that context and it's simply not good enough. Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow have every right to feel chapped that they got snubbed here.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

This Film Drunk beatdown of the movie aligns closely to my thoughts, so since someone saved me the typing, here's some snips:
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’s daddy...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 soir√©e 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.

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.

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.

 Go read it all.


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