In Benh Zeitlin's feature debut the wrestling match between the human spirit and human nature is explored from an infant world view. With an exceptionally assured central performance by the film's 9 year old star and wondrous moments of serene beauty, it's therefore a shame that Beasts Of The Southern Wild is often suffocated by its need to overcook key dramatic moments.
Environmental concern is at the heart of this film; set in a flooded deep south like an apocalyptically heightened New Orleans, we follow the lives of those who remain in their floating homes on borrowed time as icecaps continue to melt. It's the small but plucky Hushpuppy who the film clings to and her longing for an absent mother and dealings with a hot tempered father. Fight or flight become the two options as some flee the south to seek refuge from the elements in the north, though Hushpuppie's strong willed father and a motley crew of other alcoholics fight to stay against the power of the environment and government.
Opening with a vibrant carnival the film's tone and celebration of life is expressed immediately; an endlessly mobile camera almost uncontrollably soaking up the surroundings, intimately ecstatic, almost to the point of frustration. This handheld approach to shooting is consistent and can be at times exasperating, it seems Zietlin's camera is given the view point and the energy of a child and is as such - both pure and draining.
There is plenty to admire in this picture, for one, it accomplishes much given the modest budget and scale of production. The photography is stunning, the set design unique and genuine, both feeling lived in but with the grit never outweighing the fantastical. It's an assured debut and clearly an example of a filmmaker to look out for, yet my frustration stems from wanting to love this film more. That the key ingredients were there and drawing me into its beauty, a beauty burdened by a sense of forgery. Working with child performers can be cumbersome and these problems of strained drama most commonly result from this, however, its young central performance is a remarkable one. If anything 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis outshines the rest of the cast.
The battle between human nature and spirit, of Man's relationship with natural order, infant point of view, and the sporadic unapologetic voiceover brought to mind the cinema of Terrence Malick. With its internal struggle stemming from juxtaposed paternal figures and a focus on the nomadic, it falls somewhere between Days Of Heaven and The Tree Of Life. But where these films felt effortless, airy and uniquely candid, Zeitlin's film has an unfortunate need to smother its charm. I'd stretch to say Beasts Of The Southern Wild tries to delve into the infant mentality, to heighten every emotion, to make five moves when one was adequate. Conscious or not this approach alienates us, keeps us at a distance when we want to immerse ourselves in the emotions of these people and their position, eased by a wave of emotion instead of pummelled by it.
Overall this is an exciting debut from a talented young director surely still forming his craft, a filmmaker with a team that have miraculously created so much from so little. Though I felt I was stopped from falling in love with Beasts Of The Southern Wild the fact that it arose such strong feelings about this denial is enough to praise as it left me far from apathetic.