Watched Aug 11, 2012
Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the tale of marginalized individuals living in an unincorporated community from the eyes of a little girl named Hushpuppy. With a huge flood devastating their community and her father dying Benh Zeitlin could have easily slipped into a heavy handed neo-realist approach and show the difficulties that she faces, but right from the start he injects magic realism that Hushpuppy sees the world. From the definition those two things couldn't be more polar opposites, but Zeitlin is able to combine those two to create a sort of visual hybrid. There is the graininess of a 16mm camera, jarring camera movements and a fascination with worn faces that creates an intimacy with these characters, but there is also a poetic voice over, lyrical cinematography, ethereal score and CGI monsters that makes their world larger than life. The results are aesthetically audacious with visual metaphors and a bombardment of haunting poetic images, but despite the magical perspective of a child it can never totally eradicate the struggle.
The performances from the untrained and untested actors are quite affective and help to build the realism even further. Dwight Henry is a little too big at times delivering a too much of his dialog in yells, but he has a type of physicality whenever he is on screen that makes up for those moments. Of course there has been tons of talk about Quvenzhané Wallis and all of that is rightly earned. She truly is a force of nature giving intense and determined looks that I didn't even think was possible in a child that young. She is a revelation and a conduit where all the emotion in the film flows. Through her Benh Zeitlin focuses his visual ingenuity to build to wonderfully explosive emotional moments that strike at you like bolts of lightening.
I am a huge admirer of auteurs and always want to see directors leave their fingerprints on their films, but I do think there are times when Benh Zeitlin needed to pull back some. Beasts of the Southern Wild is beautiful and Zeitlin enthusiasm of these people and this community is undeniable, but there are times where he needed to be more patient. There are some moments where a sequence needed more time to breath or an emotional reaction needed to be expanded upon. The original score is quite affecting and is a big asset to the film, but Zeitlin does over score some scenes. There were moments where silence or quietness would have said more than the score could. I think these are more the marks of Benh Zeitlin being a young director and the fact he was so bold in his debut feature film. This type of imaginative composition and wondrous heart is part of a rousing debut, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and multiple awards at Cannes.