Beasts of the Southern Wild
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Beasts of the Southern Wild

When the levee breaks.

DIRECTED BY BENH ZEITLIN.

The critical darling of Sundance, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a trickier film to parse than its wildly positive reception might suggest. Guided by a deeply affecting lead performance from newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who was all of five years old when she auditioned for the role, Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature is an ambitious slice of Americana—a contemporary crack at Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by way of Alan Lomax’s field recordings, with a liberal dose of Hurricane Katrina imagery sprinkled on top. Despite its daring in mixing these elements together, it’s that allegorical component that ultimately leads the film astray, turning its precocious young heroine into a mouthpiece for libertarian talking points.

Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a brave six-year-old girl in an isolated New Orleans bayou that she and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) dub the Bathtub. A joyous fishing community whose residents pride themselves on their self-reliance and their handy way around a crab shell, the Bathtub is an oasis forced into contact with the rest of the world only when an epic storm strikes and a swarm of rescue workers descend in the aftermath, promising a most invasive form of disaster aid. Until then, Hushpuppy’s greatest concerns are living without her mother and outlasting a band of shaggy mythical beasts called aurochs, whom she must stand up to if she wants to become king (not queen) of the Bathtub.

Zeitlin, a New Yorker who founded the New Orleans–based grassroots filmmaking collective Court 13, has a good eye for images of ruined beauty, and an obvious appreciation for the importance of myth-making in binding a community during times of crisis. Surely he was inspired by his folklorist parents, and though it’s tempting to wonder what grants him his claim to this particular community, his intentions feel sincere. But his insistence on having Hushpuppy wax philosophical on the value of individualism and personal liberty rings false, especially when the tyke gives us an earful on the horrors of the social democratic nanny state, not least hospitals that infantilize their patients by plugging them into assistive aids like intravenous drips.

Despite her age, Hushpuppy’s dreamy narration feels less like the uncorrupted genius of an innocent child than the ponderous rambling of an undergraduate who’s just read Rousseau for the first time. That intrusion of simplistic (and frankly goofy) politics into the complex real-world milieu of post-Katrina New Orleans can’t help but feel a bit disingenuous. If one ends up rooting for Hushpuppy to cultivate her survival skills and beat back the aurochs, one also wishes the people of the Bathtub weren’t left to their own devices, regardless of what Zeitlin thinks is best for them.

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