I've heard many refer to Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild as the film that "isn't in competition for the Palme D'Or, but really should be." Consider me among the unconvinced. Despite its intriguing premise and a few standout technical aspects, this Sundance hit (which one major critic referred to as the best film to play at Sundance in over a decade) suffers from clumsy symbolism, a repetitive first act, and performances that are either off-base or simply so thin that they are in danger of evaporating.
Set in the fictional Bath Tub, a region of the Louisiana swamplands, Zeitlin's film centers on the relationship between five year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry). One day Wink falls ill, for reasons not entirely clear, and Hushpuppy must set out to set things right. But before the story proper can really settle in, Zeitlin seems intent on keeping us in an unbroken loop of scenes. There's a look a the poverty, the people, and then BAM! the score (which is, to be fair, phenomenal) swells and we get voice over from Hushpuppy telling us how the people in the Bath Tub always pull together in hard times. It's actually great in a celebration scene involving chaotic fireworks, but other times it feels like Zeitlin is trying too hard to create his environment. The production design is already astounding, and not just for its low budget, yet the writer/director insists on hammering the conditions of the characters home over and over again.
And even when things do kick into gear, Beasts fails to ever gain any sense of narrative momentum, even as it introduces a group of fearsome creatures who awaken after being unfrozen in the South Pole (wow...subtle...). The world the story takes place in (the future? a slightly modified version of the present?) is strongly realized, yet it feels like little comes of it, even with the stakes involved. Weaker still are the performances. Henry brings a volatile, tough-as-nails energy to Wink, and he certainly gets your attention. The character, perhaps more due to the writing, goes through jarring outbursts of anger and violence don't feel entirely earned. I have no problem with Wink as a father who so insistent of teaching his child to survive that he treats her too harshly, but the way Zeitlin and Henry bring it life on screen is distracting. Yet at the very least, Henry feels like he's giving an actual performance. Wallis, on the other hand, comes off like any other small child going through the motions and doing what she's told. Yes, it might sound "real," but that doesn't mean it sounds convincing. Only in one key scene does she actually feel like she's performing and emoting, rather than simply reading lines because someone told her to.
Worse is the way the plot tries to bring in parallels to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which muddles the focus. Yet nothing disappoints more than Zeitlin's handling of the titular beasts, whose symbolism does become apparent, only to make you question to point of them. The scope of Zeitlin's vision has to be admired, but not his execution. The character arcs feel week despite the potential, and the attempts at some sort of deep southern magical realism never click. An admirable attempt, but ultimately a misfire that deserves little attention. Except for the score, that is. That deserves a standing ovation.