Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Written by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
Every year, at least in recent years, there has been a highly acclaimed film featuring the rough, hard life of an impoverished, young, black woman or girl. Two years ago saw Precious, a fine film about an abused, overweight girl which featured a great performance by Gabourey Sidibe. Then last year was the film Pariah, which received favorable reviews out of Sundance, yet it’s acclaimed subdued to the point that it went mostly unnoticed come year’s end, including by me. So now we have Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it would appear we have yet another film receiving widespread acclaim, yet this film manages to be uniquely its own and the comparisons to the other two films end as soon as the film begins.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is the little girl in question. She lives in the extremely poor neighborhood affectionately called The Bathtub. It is never explicitly stated, but one imagines this low lying neighborhood resides near New Orleans in the delta of the Mississippi River. She lives there with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), whose parenting struggles along with his health and his ability to provide for his little girl. In an unfortunate turn, the weather bears down on this humble community to wipe out what they had called their homes, leaving Hushpuppy and Wink even more hard pressed to survive on what little they have. As Wink’s condition worsens, Hushpuppy flees in pursuit of the mother she barely remembers, steering clear but eventually confronting a mythical beast her teacher told her about., but it is love that calls her back to her fathers side.
It appears that with this film we are seeing the process of diminishing returns when it comes to these films that come have called “poverty porn”, a term I will address briefly in a moment, but needless to say, the film was a disappointment to me. Some people have dubbed films like these “poverty porn”, meaning they feel the film preys on the pity of the viewers, depicting awful circumstances for not other reason than to manipulate, films that struggle to mold a unified story or plot as a result. I disagree with that assessment, especially concerning this film. No, the problems of this film are different. It tries to manipulate with images, with specific storylines, but these are a symptom of the independent film world in my estimation, not of the poverty that persists for this family.
Am I making more out of what I saw than is there? Probably, maybe, but it is certainly and truthfully the way I reacted to the film. And what is strange is that I am usually the first to defend films like this that use the “indie” cliches. But the reason for that is that I feel like it can work, and work well, but it just felt empty this time. Shaky camera movements for the sake of shaky camera movements. Lack of plot and developed characters masked as limited dialogue and montage of images whose meaning aren’t nearly as deep as they want to be. The film goes nowhere and manages to drag in its brief 93 minute runtime, which is no small feat. My problem is not with the overall story, or the characters in it, but rather with the director and his lack of vision and ambition.
For everything lackluster I have said about this film, there are some positives I want to relate before I close this entry. For one, the joy for life that is shown by these poor inhabitants of a neighborhood that would make many of us would struggle to spend one night in, is something everyone can learn from. Too often we are faced with what are dubbed first world problems and don’t take the time to appreciate what we have and how many wonderful things surround us at any given time in our day. The other would be the relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy. There are instances throughout the film where my faith in Wink as a father was wavering at best, yet they are magnetic, they are all the other has. There are moments of true love in this film, even if they are rare. The fact that so many others, critics most obviously, enjoyed this film is great, but I just found it to be mostly empty of anything interesting.
** – Fair