Beasts of the Southern Wild (the big winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) is unlike anything you will see this year. At times it is raw, independent filmmaking while at others it decides to take on the ambitious filmmaking style that you would normally only see from an auteur director. However, the film is not without its problems. While almost every individual scene is done perfectly, they don’t always mesh with the scenes that come before and after it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild follows a 6-year old girl (Quvenzhane Wallis) who lives on the outskirts of a New Orleans-like city. After a storm hits, she and her father (Dwight Henry) must fight to stay alive. Despite the hardships of survival, the girl decides this is a perfect time to go looking for her lost mother. There is a lot more to the story than that, but other than saying that there are some fantastical elements in play would ruin the surprise. Benh Zeitlin directs and writes the film with help from Lucy Alibar (whose play the film is based off of). Zeitlin clearly shows that he is a force to be reckoned with. His portrayal of New Orleans is the most intimate and spellbinding of that culture yet. New Orleans’ portrayal in HBO’s Treme is something to be commended, but in this film it is just so much more realistic and the viewer has a much stronger attachment to this world.
Benh Zeitlin also shows he is a master at handling the more fantastical elements of the film as well. These elements are just so original and intriguing. It also helps that Zeitlin is able to stretch every dollar he has to the maximum. There is no widespread info on the budget for this film, but it is believed to be under $2 million. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this film looks as if it was made for $50 million. Cinematography, art direction, musical score (the best of the year so far), and visual effects (I’m still perplexed how they pulled one effects heavy scene off) all come together to form one of the most visually striking films in recent memory.
The problem with this film (and it’s a major one) is that the realistic and fantastical elements don’t mix at all. Almost every scene is masterfully done but mix them together and they just don’t fit. Take for instance the scene that concludes the fantastical elements. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion and just seems odd in the placement of the film. However, if you took that scene out of the film and screened it as a short film, it would easily be one of the best of the year.
Luckily, a strong cast buoys the entire film. Most of the attention has been going to the film’s young lead, Quvenzhane Wallis. She does more than anyone could have expected out of a young child. However, the most impressive performance belongs to Dwight Henry. Henry had no acting experience prior to this film (in fact, he was/is a bakery owner in New Orleans). His character starts the film as a man shrouded in mystery. As the film goes on however, more and more layers are revealed and Henry nails all of them. Surprisingly, there isn’t a single weak performance in this cast of nobodies and amateurs.
I admire this film a lot more than I like it. However, Benh Zeitlin does a smart thing by not revealing all of his cards at once. This film leaves many components up to the imagination. This is probably a film that will reward the viewer even more upon second viewing. So despite the somewhat low grade I am giving it, I recommend that you not only see this film, but see it twice.