In the Bathtub of the World

06/20/2012 4:00 AM |

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin

“Everybody’s daddy’s die!” “Not my daddy!”
“I see I’m a little piece of a big, big universe.”

If you’re feeling like an especially little piece of the universe, one cause might be the loneliness of disliking Beasts of the Southern Wild, the rapturously received Sundance and Cannes prizewinner that has been warming hearts and triumphing human spirits for at least a few months now. Insufferably precious, sappy, and self-impressed, Benh Zeitlin’s pompously titled debut feature helpfully reimagines the post-Katrina Delta as a water-world hamlet of eccentrics enlivened by bedraggled hoedowns, all seen through the eyes of a spunky motherless six-year-old named Hushpuppy. Single Daddy’s nuts and constantly talking about being a daddy, storms and prehistoric monsters are on the apocalyptic horizon, and Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan√© Wallis) has pages of sassy-wiseblood voiceover to get through before the credit roll.

Wrapped up in its own mythology, Beasts sets the mood early with a fireworks parade establishing its insular world’s handmade look, down-home camaraderie, and sense of endangered wonder. The resourcefulness of this calculatedly oddball community is mirrored in the resourcefulness of the filmmaking (junkyard sets, shrewd framing and primal Where the Wild Things Are special effects, collation of individually spotty scenes). Suffused with Hushpuppy’s spirit of discovery, you are to celebrate one and both, while Zeitlin’s production collective, folklorist parentage, and great appreciation for the Louisiana people make for ready-made
preview coverage.

Beasts is capable of capturing the unpredictably shifting fear and excitement of childhood, made real by the magnetic young actress Wallis, not hard to spot as the standout in a highly variable nonpro cast. But while aspects of the film’s hybrid techniques hold historical interest, the film’s patchy construction banks too hard on the notion of Hushpuppy’s half-understanding moppet’s-eye perspective, and lets a genuine sense of playfulness get buried in applause-baiting exultation.

Opens June 25