Beasts of the Southern Wild

The feature debut from writer-director Benh Zeitlin, working with playwright Lucy Alibar and a New Orleans collective, rides in on a murky flood of festival hype. And what caused that, anyway? The inevitable Sundance-stamped confluence of poverty-porn and indie quaintness?

Wow, already this is sounding cynical, but then “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has a habit of inviting audience push-back. For starters, it’s called “Beasts of the Southern Wild”; right away one senses some amateur anthropology going on, apologized for or at best compounded with amateur poetry. Still, the amateur operates from love, and Zeitlin has that. However patronizing, his reverie aches to be watched, and on as large a screen as possible. It says: Behold!

Newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis steals the show as a brave 6-year-old who yearns for her missing mother, copes with her ailing father (Dwight Henry), and navigates the archly magical-realist realms that lurk amid the muck and grit of a doomed, levee-locked Louisiana bayou. Hushpuppy is her name, and she gets around in the rusted rear end of a floatation-rigged pickup truck, and she is tough and tenacious, and she has visions of melting ice caps. Behold: the innocence, the resilience, the retrospectively peculiar-seeming fortitude of childhood, galvanized by apocalyptic anxiety!

Too much?

Wait, there’s more. Her father is called Wink, as if the movie were just kidding when setting him up as an epitome of rough parental neglect, for in fact his declining health reduces — nay, enlarges — him to a heap of tender devotion. Meanwhile the aura of romanticized dysfunction extends to the entire community, seen drunkenly and communally weathering an allegorical storm and subsequent flood. Presumably the beasts in question aren’t just Hushpuppy’s half-imagined pack of enormous prehistoric wild boars (set free from that melted ice), but also the central characters themselves — poor, black, modernity-deprived, and too-preciously steadfast. In which case, are we not basically calling them animals? At any rate they are marginal to our society, and best kept that way, so as to be fawned over through a magic movie magnifying glass.

To authenticate his and Alibar’s laboriously folkloric calculations, Zeitlin uses nonprofessional actors. Good idea, as the last thing this needs is actors seeming actorly. But playing with regular folks can and does backfire because, well, they’re not professional actors. Not helping, Wallis gets a voiceover narration full of aphoristic wisdom and philosophy-jive, which only annuls the great cinematic discovery of her face and unflatteringly emphasizes the film’s theatrical origins. As for originality, it’s here, but in quotation marks.

Preferring pseudo-mythology to political seriousness, as if the latter were beneath it, the film amounts to a flamboyant indomitable-spirit demonstration, with undeniable vitality but also a sort of heavy, even beastly dullness. Zeitlin has talent and guts, yes. Ultimately, though, he inspires not wonder or awe so much as our browbeaten awareness of the pride he takes in his own presentation.