Already "Beasts of the Southern Wild"is the most divisive film of 2012, which is a testament to its co-writer and director, Benh Zeitlin, making his feature film debut with a picture that killed at Sundance, won the Camera d'Or (best first film) at Cannes and has been critically anointed by some while declared shiny but overbearing by others.
So that's the context. What's up with the entity behind the noise?
Zeitlin has lived in southern Louisiana for several years, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and his work is unthinkable without the aftermath of that natural and then human-exacerbated disaster. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" begins with a walloping overture depicting life in "the Bathtub," an area sparsely populated by hangers-on and don't-tread-on-me hardscrabblers cut off from "the dry world." Our guide to the Bathtub and the apocalypse in the making is 6-year-old narrator Hushpuppy, played by a compelling force of nature named Quvenzhane Wallis.
Hushpuppy's mother is either dead or gone. Her father, Wink, played by an unfortunately screechy Dwight Henry, has cobbled together a survivalist existence. He is an abrasive, hard-drinking, physically abusive exemplar of alleged tough love. He is also dying, as is this metaphorical delta world. Wink must prepare Hushpuppy for a life on her own. In a magical realist flourish, the melting polar ice caps are bringing forth from the ice ancient beasts known as "Aurochs," marauding around what's left of the Bathtub.
Much of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" looks pretty amazing for its budget (believed to be under $2 million). It comes from the play "Juicy and Delicious" written by Zeitlin's co-writer, Lucy Alibar. There is nothing stagey going on. Its imaginings of a forsaken community flow directly out of Zeitlin's short film "Glory at Sea" (available on YouTube), an earlier allegorical exploration of the post-Katrina populace. Some of the images stick, the best one — Hushpuppy running wild with sparklers in the prologue — already established as the marketing campaign's hook.
That look, the ambience, clearly is slaying a good percentage of those responding to "Beasts of the Southern Wild." The filmmaker comes from a perspective of great empathy and considerable skill. But he's a pile driver as a dramatist. The film's screw-tightening methods are so overbearing, the story, the characters, the little girl's plight have to struggle to breathe or develop anything like an inner life.
Partly it's a matter of the musical score; like "Glory at Sea," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is swamped by music composed by Zeitlin and Dan Romer. The swells, peaks, valleys and zydeco-inflected rhythms smother every inch of the movie. That movie is an eyeful; the cinematographer, Ben Richardson, is a serious comer. But even with the great good efforts of Wallis, the results, to some of us, betray a distrustworthy slickness reminiscent of a British Petroleum oil spill clean-up commercial.
'Beasts of the Southern Wild' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality)
Running time: 1:33
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun