“Beasts of the Southern Wild”, the first film from co-writer/director Behn Zeitlin, is equal parts brilliant and frustrating. I know that I’m in the minority here: “Beasts” recently won Best Picture at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and won best debut film at Cannes. I can see why people love it: it’s beautifully shot, incredibly well-acted, and — at times — emotionally arresting. But Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar’s (who wrote the play that this film is based on) heavy-handed and melodramatic script constantly undermine the sharp visuals and Oscar-worthy performances from the talented cast of unknowns. What we’re left with is a gorgeous misfire.
6-year-old newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis is terrific here as Hushpuppy, a quiet but fearless child who lives in a small town called “The Bathtub” with her father Wink, played by the equally strong Dwight Henry. Their world is turned upside down when a massive storm (yes, it’s Katrina) floods “The Bathtub”. Hushpuppy and Wink survive, along with several of their neighbors and friends, but Wink begins to suffer from a possibly-fatal illness that threatens to leave Hushpuppy parentless. (Her mother abandoned the family a long time ago; she shows up in several flashbacks.) In light of her fathers illness, Hushpuppy begins to search for her long-lost mother.
I’m leaving out several key elements from the plot in order to avoiding spoiling anything for people who decide to see “Beasts”. What I will say, however, is that what could’ve been a lovely low-budget gem (it was only made for a little over $1 million, which is pocket change in Hollywood) instead feels like a missed opportunity. C-
- Marcus Flewellen