By Matt Singer | Criticwire July 24, 2012 at 3:28PM
"This movie is a blast of sheer, improbable joy, a boisterous, thrilling action movie with a protagonist who can hold her own alongside Katniss Everdeen, Princess Merida and the other brave young heroines of 2012." -- A.O. Scott, New York Times
"The movie is an eyeful; the cinematographer, Ben Richardson, is a serious comer. But even with the great good efforts of [Quvenzhane] Wallis, the results, to some of us, betray a distrustworthy slickness reminiscent of a British Petroleum oil spill clean-up commercial." -- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
"'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is sheer poetry on screen: an explosion of joy in the midst of startling squalor and one of the most visceral, original films to come along in a while." -- Christy Lemire, Associated Press
"'Beasts' pretends to be celebrating gumption and resolve, but what it's ultimately selling is stubbornness and isolationism. There is a word for films like this: bullshit." -- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, MUBI
It's too bad none of the versions of "At the Movies" are on television right now, because either version -- the final syndicated series starring Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott, or the PBS iteration featuring Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky -- would have produced a fascinating and potentially very heated debate on "Beasts of the Southern Wild." The film, from director Benh Zeitlin and an indie film collective called Court 13, premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival to ecstatic and near-universal praise, but its reception in limited release, shown above, has been significantly more mixed. Some have hailed this story of a young girl and her isolated Louisiana community's struggle to survive in the face of apocalyptic weather and the sudden melting of the Artic ice pack as a modern masterpiece. Others see it as an overly slick piece of exploitation. In other words: the most polar movie of the year is also the most polarizing.
By now we've seen a "Beasts" backlash and even, in some circles, a backlash to the backlash. In anticipation of the backlash to the backlash to the backlash (the forelash?), let's run down the arguments for and against the film:
PRO: It doesn't look like any other movie.
As Slate's Dana Stevens put it, "'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is nothing if not original." It's set in "The Bathtub," a singular, fantastical evocation of isolated southern Louisiana, and stars a cast of untrained actors with unique voices and unknown faces. At a time when multiplexes are glutted with sameness, "Beasts" is clearly and obviously something different.
CON: Okay, actually, it does kind of look like some other movies.
Zeitlin's vision may be his own, but the influences that shaped that vision aren't difficult to spot. Whether Zeitlin combines tropes and devices from Terrence Malick, Mark Twain, and others to create something new, or simply reheats some old cinematic gumbo is up to the viewer to decide. Regardless, the film may not be quite as original as it superficially appears; see Deadspin's Tim Grierson's list of five classic indie film clichés featured prominently in "Beasts." If Stevens' comment holds, if it's nothing if not original, and it's not all that original, then, one could argue, it's ultimately nothing.
PRO: Lead actress Quvenzhane Wallis, just six-years-old at the time of production, is incredible.
In my own "Beasts" review for ScreenCrush, I said Wallis' performance must be one of the best ever given by a child in the history of movies. Weeks later, I see no reason to amend that statement. If any part of "Beasts" lives up to the hype, it's Wallis, who is ferocious and fearless as Hushpuppy, the young girl who serves as our narrator and guide through The Bathtub. The rest of the movie may occasionally strike false notes, but Wallis never does.
CON: Lead actress Quvenzhane Wallis provides a convenient excuse for every other problem in the movie.
Some "Beasts" defenders use Wallis, and the fact Zeitlin frames the entire film through her 6-year-old eyes, as an impenetrable defense against any claims about its absurd narrative, questionable politics, and sketchy depiction of the Bathtubs' other residents. Adam Nayman smartly identified this issue in a recent piece for Cinema Scope; Wallis' narration, he wrote, is "both successful, in the sense that people seem to really respond to it, and the dramaturgical equivalent of an escape hatch. The blurriness of the other characters can be safely fobbed off as a byproduct of Hushpuppy’s very particular point of view, rather than any sort of creative myopia." In turn, some critics have used Wallis as a means to perform a similar act of shortsightedness.
PRO: It's a truly independent movie that celebrates independence.
With very little money, Zeitlin and his team built an entire world populated by remarkable characters and mystical creatures. This tiny film boasts a massive scope and the special effects to back it up. What's more, this independent movie is, ultimately, about the spirit of independence with which it was made. At Movieline, Michelle Orange said the film "is rich enough to accommodate a number of thematic inscriptions, including American class and ideological disparities, moral philosophies of prosperity and independence, environmental imbalance and Katrina-esque catastrophe." Hushpuppy and the members of the Bathtub can be read as stand-ins for Court 13, defiantly resisting opportunities to sell-out or accept aid, soldiering on in their mission to create a record of their time that will stand for generations.
CON: It might also celebrate the notion that the people of Louisiana were better off without the government's help post-Katrina.
"Beasts"' message of defiance and resistance feels inspirational in the abstract, but it takes on different connotations when paired with Zeitlin's "Katrina-esque catastrophe" imagery of oil refineries, rising flood waters, and ineffectual FEMA agents. In Time Out Chicago, Ben Kenigsberg said that "Beasts" "allegorizes Katrina as George W. Bush might like to remember it" by implying that Katrina's victims were happy -- and maybe even better off --enduring the storm alone. Maybe that's simply a byproduct of Hushpuppy's naive worldview -- or maybe that's another example of our second con argument.
PRO: Zeitlin shines a spotlight on a kind of community rarely represented in the media.
How often do we see a community like the Bathtub -- racially diverse, uninterested in material gain, committed to family and self-sufficiency -- onscreen? Extremely rarely. Zeitlin told the Denver Post's Lisa Kennedy that he's lived in New Orleans for six years, but still relates to "the wonder" Hushpuppy feels as she surveys The Bathtub. Part of "Beasts"' success lies in the way it communicates that wonder from Zeitlin to Hushpuppy to the viewer. It makes southern Louisiana look like a magical place, one we've never seen before.
CON: Spotlights aren't necessarily accurate -- or flattering.
Of course, there's the distinct possibility we've never seen a place like The Bathtub onscreen before because it's implausible and kind of silly -- a world that seems based entirely on a foundation on alcoholism, non-stop parties, and never throwing away your garbage. Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post that Zeitlin's attempt to fuse real tragedies with "mytho-poetic" imagery "plays less like a grounded, human-scaled story than a dilettantish piece of cultural tourism." The Bathtub does not lack for vision, but it could maybe use some more authenticity.
So after all of that, what's left to say? Is "Beasts of the Southern Wild" a classic in the making or an overrated, over-reaching misfire?
Maybe it's both. Maybe it is a stunning vision, and maybe it is a little bit derivative. Maybe its star is amazing, and maybe some folks are too quick to use that star to brush aside the less endearing aspects around her. Maybe "Beasts of the Southern Wild" isn't the greatest American independent film of the last 25 years and maybe it never had to be. Maybe it's simply an ambitious and genuinely impressive debut film -- with everything, good and bad, that comes with ambitious and genuinely impressive debuts. It's beautiful, inspiring, full of promise, and far from perfect.
You can hear A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips debate "Beasts of the Southern Wild" on the new episode of Filmspotting.