A prizewinner at this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is a unique mix of pseudo-profound mysticism and working-class grit, but rather than making a poignant statement about poverty or natural disasters, it mashes together a bunch of disparate elements into a clumsy (if sometimes striking) mess. Beasts takes place in a fictional land off the coast of Louisiana known as the Bathtub, where residents live in a sort of primitive idyll in ramshackle trailers and shacks. The movie is narrated by 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a tough young girl who lives with her neglectful, perpetually angry father Wink (Dwight Henry).
Beasts is a magical-realist fable and an allegory for Hurricane Katrina, as a terrible storm batters the Bathtub while faceless government functionaries command residents to leave their homes. Meanwhile, the beasts of the title, giant mythical boar-like creatures, are released from the polar ice caps thanks to global warming (or something). The indistinct fairy-tale tone meshes awkwardly with the muddled political message and the grimy, handheld cinematography. Hushpuppy’s narration is full of circular nonsense, and the dialogue by Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar is similarly obtuse.
With its combination of Terrence Malick-like visual poetry and hushed voiceover, along with the appearance of sociopolitical relevance, Beasts certainly feels like something fresh and new. But just because something is different doesn’t make it successful, and all of the unique elements here never add up to a cohesive or satisfying whole.