Beasts of the Southern Wild

00:00 July 31, 2012
By: Fritz Esker
[Courtesy of Fox Searchlight]

The locally shot was the darling of this year's Sundance Film Festival, arriving on a wave of hype and positive publicity. Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to the hype.

The film, directed by Benh Zeitlin, is something of a magical realist fable about a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her father (Dwight Henry) in a poor area called the Bathtub, separated from the rest of society by a levee. After a storm, most of the town evacuates, and Hushpuppy and her father are two of a tiny group of survivors who refuse to leave.

There are some beautiful images scattered throughout, and a touching late scene between father and daughter hints at the emotional power the film could have had. But the problem is, the characters have very little depth. Hushpuppy is a cute innocent. Her dad is volatile but loving. Neither is a three-dimensional character, but they still fare better than the paper-thin characterizations of the other survivors, who register as nothing more than the standard-issue eccentrics who plague films about New Orleans and the South in general.

Also problematic are the film's obvious allusions to Katrina. Though not every work of art to comment on Katrina needs to address it head-on, the film's fable approach robs what was a catastrophic tragedy of its bite. Yes, there's a sense of frustration at people being asked to abandon their homes (this would have been more affecting if they weren't stock characters), but there's little sense of the lives lost. It ends up feeling like a safe, anesthetized version of Katrina that viewers can watch without being too unsettled and feel good about themselves for watching it. In that regard, it's a little reminiscent of Roberto Benigni's take on the Holocaust in Life is Beautiful, but without the attempts at comedy.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is likely to provoke some interesting discussions and is definitely change-of-pace fare for the summer, but it's still ultimately a disappointment.

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