MIFF: Beasts Of The Southern Wild

The first so-so review we\'ve read about this American indie.

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Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild presents a debut filmmaker with a voice, but not much in the way of style. A winner at Sundance, Beasts is an extraordinary technical achievement, but is frequently more arresting than it is compelling, as director and co-writer flings a kaleidoscope of expressionistic images at the screen to compensate for the film’s thin story.  Louisiana child Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in an impoverished bayou with her drunk, angry but well-meaning father (Dwight Henry). As a flood destroys her home and community, Hushpuppy imagines a fantasy landscape populated by ancient boar-like creatures.    

Beasts is ADD filmmaking, as social realist settings serve as a catalyst for the child’s unconscious fantasies. Zeitlin’s approach is instinctive rather than intellectual, with mood and atmosphere taking precedence over story development. Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s camera attempts to intuitively find the action within the scene (Barry Ackroyd-like), with the handheld photography constantly panning and shifting to uncover the details in the improvised performances. Their camerawork is strong, but Richardson is often fighting with the film’s obnoxious sound design, which mixes naturalistic sounds with more fantastical elements to sometimes imaginative – but often cacophonic – effect. Terrence Malick by way of Danny Boyle, Zeitlin frequently betrays his origins as a musician, as he thinks more in terms of subjective feeling than in psychology or narrative. It isn’t only the child who allows her undeveloped fantasies to run rampart.   

Beasts is populated by non-professional actors, and sometimes it shows. Wallis is an appealing actress, but you’re never sure whether Henry is giving a good or bad performance, as Zeitlin requires him to shout many of his lines. In relief to the filmmaker’s earlier excesses, the more quiet and mournful closing scenes leave both actors opportunity to present a nuanced interpretation of their roles. 

Certainly distinctive, Beasts is aggressively emotional, too, presenting a story with a big heart, but not much of a head.

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