‘THIS is the prettiest place on earth,” observes six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), which sets the tone for Beasts Of The Southern Wild as a movie which flies in the face of received ideas.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild (12A)
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Running time: 93 minutes
Star rating: * * *
Sure, her home is a lush verdant wilderness, but the Bathtub is also a muddy island where Hushpuppy is raised by her single parent, heavy drinking father (Dwight Henry) without electricity and amongst livestock and rubbish, living on what they can forage or tins of cat food.
At school their teacher warns them that they are not much more than walking meat too, like all the other creatures. And to compound the sense of fatalism, they know that a flood could easily sweep their whole community away, and that there’s one brewing; yet still they cling to their watery home.
Hushpuppy is the narrator, scornful of the folks who live in cities with fish in plastic wrappers and holidays once a year, and entranced by the folklore tradition of her community.
First-time director Benh Zeitlin uses non-professional actors, in Louisiana bayous, for a folklorish drama loosely based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play Juicy And Delicious. The best of the actors are Wallis and Henry, who have the confidence to act out a relationship with a push-pull force. Sometimes they are devoted to each other, sometimes the father in particular is brutishly negligent of his daughter. It’s supposed to be his way of preparing his daughter to fight through a life without him, but it’s a notion plucked from the air and performances rather than developed by the script.
The Katrina-like storm that inevitably engulfs the Bathtub is one deluge that the film has to cope with, but there are others for the audience: a soundtrack that won’t shut up, for instance, an unnecessary naive babbling voiceover for another. And the film’s visuals get bogged down with enough shots of nature in all its raw beauty to send Terrence Malick off to check with the copyright lawyers. Like Malick, Beasts Of The Southern Wild contains some shapeless episodic dawdling that, if you are in the mood, you might regard as “elegiac” and “spiritual”, but if you are grumpy, impatient or lacking in good will, might otherwise call “draggy” or “a bit patronising”.
I quite like the riskiness of Zeitlin’s project – a floating brothel with absentee mothers aboard is just one of the elements that makes this a film like nothing else you’ll see this year – but it’s also an eccentric, hyperbolic, soulful mess. «
On selected release from Friday