Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry. Written by Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin. Directed by Benh Zeitlin. PG. 93 min. Opens July 13.
A ramshackle piece of magic realism set in a fictitious community in the Louisiana Delta, Beasts of the Southern Wild is already the year’s most decorated American feature with big wins at Sundance and Cannes. However, Benh Zeitlin’s film may be rather less enchanting to audiences as it moves beyond the hothouse environment of over-excitable festival screenings. A precious blend of ecological fable and Southern gothic story complete with mythological creatures and a cute six-year-old heroine, it strives to seem wondrous but frequently trips over its own ambitions and pretentions. Its efforts to pass muster as a unique piece of cinematic folk art are also undermined by its stylistic debts to far superior sources, be it the writings of Flannery O’Connor or fellow American indie flicks like George Washington, the finely honed debut by future Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green.
The one element of the film that genuinely deserves the advance praise is Quvenzhané Wallis. With her untamed hair and indefatigable energy, she is instantly memorable as Hushpuppy, one of the youngest residents of the Bathtub, a poor, isolated, junk-strewn community that is ravaged by a Katrina-like hurricane. Besides imperiling Hushpuppy and her hot-tempered but not unloving alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), the storm has unleashed a herd of prehistoric boar-like creatures named aurochs. Just as menacing are the FEMA types trying to clear out the Bathtub, thereby fouling up Hushpuppy’s efforts to help the ailing Wink and search for her long-missing mother.
The film’s hectic pace and chaotic nature make it difficult to tell what’s intentionally roughhewn and what’s merely sloppy. Then again, that would appear to be Zeitlin’s principal strategy. And while his film flirts with images of post-Katrina destruction and toys with themes of environmental degradation and socio-economic disparity, it slathers them with such a heavy coating of whimsy that the result feels fatally contrived and cravenly sentimental—two qualities that may nevertheless earn it many more awards.