Back when the universe was less than half its present size and A-numbers only had six digits in them, one of the first film reviews I ever wrote for internet consumption was for Spielberg's A.I. – and its publication was delayed until the end of September 2001 by events occurring near the start of that month. I still think this movie is better than most people say it is – but one of things that struck me about it at the time was the almost prescient quality of its vision of a devastated New York, and the image of a fragile body tumbling from a skyscraper. Sometimes films make one of these uncannily well-timed debuts.
So it is – sort of – with Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fabulist tale of a small American community struggling to cope with the aftermath of a terrible storm and the destruction following in its wake. Will the recent troubles of the eastern USA make people view this sort of thing in a different light? I'm not sure. I do know that even before the weather turned bad, this film was attracting rave reviews and generating considerable buzz, particularly for one of its lead performances. A few months ago, I would've said the chances of a seven-year-old girl being a nominee for the Best Actress Oscar were roughly the same as those of a new Star Wars movie being released... which only goes to show what a perverse sense of humour the universe sometimes has (George, WHY??????).
But anyway. This is the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl living on an island somewhere off the gulf coast of either Florida or Louisiana (it doesn't really matter). She is played, with remarkable aplomb, by Quvenzhane Wallis (it's pronounced... er, I'll get back to you on that one). Hushpuppy's life is one of extreme privation, mainly because her father (Dwight Henry) is a deeply erratic drunk. But then the same could probably said for many of the members of their little community, and everyone seems happy enough.
Then a storm comes, the floodwater destroying everything she has known and placing all of their lives in jeopardy. With the authorities attempting to forcibly relocate them from the disaster area, Hushpuppy has to confront a much more personal problem: her father is very ill. Her world is falling apart, and for her this finds expression in vivid fantasies of ancient monsters breaking free of their icy tombs and ravaging the world...
Well, this movie has generally received extremely positive reviews elsewhere – the poster is crammed with encomiums along the lines of 'remarkable', 'spellbinding', 'a miracle', and 'soul-shaking' and it would take a fiercer critic than me to argue that this is a film shot through with serious flaws and weaknesses. The performances – from non-professionals, after all, though expect Quvenzhane Wallis to reappear, firstly in some dismal blockbuster in a couple of years and then in rehab before her seventeenth birthday – are committed and affecting, the world of the movie has an almost tangible reality to it, and it is on some level a movie full of powerful ideas. The concept of seeing the world through the eyes of a child has seldom been quite so well executed before (even if at a few points we seem to be seeing the world through the eyes of a child who has quite a limited special effects budget). This is never less than a well-made movie.
However, it is still fundamentally a well-made movie about horribly poor people living in a swamp. I went to see it with my special advisor on Latin American affairs and motorsport (another of the support staff who seems to want to branch out) and his verdict was 'Waterworld meets City of God with a dash of Narnia,' and as usual I can see where he's coming from. (He also talked a bit about flying pigs, which personally I seem to have missed, but nobody's perfect.) Perhaps the most powerful sustained section of the film is at the very start, depicting everyday life on the island – sound, colour, performances and editing combine to produce something powerfully affecting and joyful. But after this we are in a scenario which, no matter how well performed or photographed it is, revolves around a child living in the most dreadful squalour and poverty, forced to look after her useless alcoholic father, featuring numerous scenes of irresponsible behaviour and child endangerment. It may be that the film is saying that life can be wonderful even in these circumstances, but I got no sense of any kind of moral outrage on the film-makers' part that people still have to live this way.
Possibly I'm over-reacting, but it just seemed to me that much of this film was a kind of poverty travelogue, made so well-educated people with sizeable mortgages can appreciate the aesthetics of a well-shot picture and still display an interest in the lot of other kinds of human beings. Even here, though... I understand that American culture has a long tradition of characters like Hushpuppy and her father – resonances with, for example, the work of Mark Twain, are very obvious – but the fact remains that they're portrayed in an arguably stereotypical manner. And then there's the fact that this film is called Beasts of the Southern Wild – who are these beasts, exactly? Is it the ancient monsters? Is it the elusive flying pigs? Or is it the inhabitants of the island? If so, it is – at the very least – a rather patronising conceit.
This film seemed to me to be the cinematic equivalent of one of those literary novels where everything is about the quality of the prose and the effect of the imagery and theme – there's very little actual plot to speak of, just a lot of incidental virtuosity and a general sense of ill-defined profundity. I don't know whether I'd describe Beasts of the Southern Wild as actually worth seeing – it looks good, the performances are impressive and it's never actually dull. But my soul was certainly not shaken and it seemed to me to be a film which was more about itself than the actual realities of the characters' situation. Still likely to do very well in next year's gong season, of course.