Beasts; burden

Here’s a thing. Beasts Of The Southern Wild opens in cinemas today. I saw an advance London preview of this film in August, which is unusual for me, as I’m happier waiting for a film’s release, but my interest was piqued by a rave review in the New Yorker back in June by the reliable David Denby, in which he hailed it as “the first classic of the Long Recession” and “a joyous movie”, praising its “exciting palpability”, its “oxygen-sharp sense of the present tense” and describing it as “raucous and alive.” That it has no star names, was shot on location on the Louisiana coast using many locals and non-actors, and is the feature debut of 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin and co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar pushed it right to the front of the queue for me. What was this film Beasts of the Southern Wild?

Well, I, like many other critics who’ve been fortunate enough to see it in advance (it showed at Cannes and Sundance, and, this week, the London Film Festival), was totally bowled over by it. I have reviewed it for Radio Times and given it five stars. Now, I am very careful when handing out five-star reviews. I’m not a film critic who has to see every film that’s released every week, and I like to think this makes me less jaded and broken by the sheer weight of chaff, and gives me a level head. It’s dangerous to rate a film when you walk out of the cinema or screening room, and since August I have reconsidered and regrouped, and I still think it’s worth five stars.

However, there’s a problem with five-star reviews: they can be “quoted” on a film’s publicity without any supporting language. My five stars have indeed been included on print ads for Beasts, alongside many others. The ads are lit up by a veritable constellation of stars. This is a film that seems to stand apart from the herd – magical and heartfelt, yet dark and foreboding; naturalistic due to the involvement of untrained actors and the tactile bayou setting, but hyperreal at the same time, with fantasy and overstatement thrown in – which means it won’t delight everybody. That’s usually the yardstick question you must ask yourself as a critic before handing out five stars: will anybody be able to enjoy it? Is it the equal of Casablanca?

Who can know for sure? Not everybody would like Casablanca! (It’s in black and white!) Wanting to see a film again, soon after seeing it for the first time, is a good gauge for me. And I can’t wait to see Beasts of the Southern Wild again.

So what is it? It’s a fable set on the wrong side of the flood defences in New Orleans, where the dirt-poor subsist, literally, off the fruits of the sea, and barter not just crayfish and crab, but stories and mythology and camaraderie. This is an ecosystem, and it’s viewed through the eyes of the six-year-old Hushpuppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who also narrates. I thought she was a boy at first, but she’s a girl. Her lone parent Wink, a functioning drunk with a good heart that’s also a bad heart, is played with dignity and depth by another non-thesp, baker Dwight Henry. And there’s a storm – another storm, as this seems to be post-Katrina – brewing.

What is already a ramshackle shanty town looks all the more precarious with a hurricane looming, but these people have nothing, and thus have nothing to lose. If you’re worried that this is “class tourism”, a gap-year view of poverty, don’t be. I never felt that Zeitlin or Alimar were patronising these resilient people; rather, offering them up as a lifeline out of the apparently “civilised” mess the rest of us on the other side of the wall are in.

The image that dominates the trailer and the posters is the one where Hushpuppy runs through exploding fireworks. This is not typical of the film, certainly not the bulk of it. The stampeding prehistoric aurochs – giant boar – are another image that should not be overplayed. They’re key, but do not dominate. It’s more about survival, and family, and hope, those unfashionable kinds of things. I love the way Hushpuppy holds animals and birds up to her ear, so she can hear their breathing – just to reassure herself that they are alive. It could have been hokey, but for me, it’s not. It feels warm and vital and real.

I’m just concerned that a film which actually deserves to be discovered is now being rammed down people’s throats. It may not be able to live up to the hype. It has big ideas, but it’s a small film. It’s not The Help. It’s not Driving Miss Daisy. It’s not The Color Purple. It’s not really about “color” at all. Neither, closer to home, is it HBO’s syncopated New Orleans-set Treme, whose defining local/political point of view feels conventional by comparison. It’s a bit like George Washington and The Wizard Of Oz, if either helps, but it’s mainly not like much else.

Nick Pinkerton, reviewing in Sight & Sound, pulled it to bits; more importantly, he called out all the critics who had given it five stars, and accused us all of being hoodwinked. (Somebody on Twitter called me “conceited” for suggesting that the rave reviews for Killing Them Softly were a bit over the top, but I never accused my fellow critics of being duped, which is, you might say, a bit conceited. I simply thought a five-star film by some consensus was more of a three.)

I would love to know what people think of this unlikely film. I’ve been living with my five stars since the first week of August, and now they’ve been pressed into service to promote the film, I’m feeling responsible. It’s my Beasts burden.

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7 thoughts on “Beasts; burden

  1. You must have some five star (rating) stories to tell of your days (month? ;-)) at Empire’s helm – none of its online reviews of the latest blockbuster are complete without some “how can you give Transformers 3 less stars than Transformers 2 when you say it’s better/did Attack of the Clones/Superman Returns really get five stars/the editors decide the reviews not the reviewer” histrionics!

    • I gave Die Hard With A Vengeance five stars when I was the editor of Empire (so who was going to argue with me?); it is still spoken of with a degree of retrospective mirth. (It’s a four-star film, obviously.)

  2. I liked it. I couldn’t believe the S&S review but there again they liked ‘The Tree of Life’ and I hated it. I thought its depiction of poverty through a child’s eye was incredible (she of course knows no other life). And the mix of reality and what I took to be the girl’s imagination was very nicely done. Maybe it doesn’t deserve the five-star treatment but that’s the problem with star ratings – they invite backlashes.

  3. I just saw the film and totally loved it. Can’t believe the guy who played Wink is a baker! Agree that images used are misleading and that its her perspective that makes it so amazing. Also liked that he treats her like a boy so she is so strong and proud, despite all the other messed up stuff. But I also want to correct you (sorry, pedantic and born that way) she listens to the animals heartbeats, its on the soundtrack. But I loved it and agree with you about 5 stars.

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