Fiction films about American disasters always feel a bit opportunistic at first glance, but for every World Trade Centre we end up getting a United 93. Beasts of the Southern Wild makes an attempt at constructing a post-Katrina narrative through the story of a young girl and the community of wild people of which she is a part.
Directed by Benh Zeitlin, the film is a fantasy mash-up of many old folk themes, such as the Great Flood, assorted monsters and a coming-of-age story arc, but unfortunately Zeitlin does little more with these tropes than present them. Considering both his parents are folklorists in New York City, it feels like a wasted opportunity as he could have interpreted these tales and taken them somewhere new. As presented here they are stripped of any inherent meaning, there is nothing going on in this film beneath the surface.
The surface itself is sometimes difficult to grasp as there are some dreadful shaky-cam moments here that can be physically bothersome to the point of making you wonder who would pay for this experience. When the camera is held still long enough to focus (and focus is another thing gone a bit awry here at times) there are some impressive visuals, a testament to the location scout and set designers. Add to that the soundtrack and you have all the film’s positives in half a paragraph.
Character-building takes a real hit in Beasts as Zeitlin is of the mind that if you put a cute kid on the screen people will immediately like her. This may be true but while protagonist and narrator Hushpuppy (Quevenzhané Wallis) has her moments, particularly towards the beginning of the film, we are never actually granted any insight into her life apart from the sweet nothings from Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar’s pen she mediates at us. Lines like “when it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything around me in invisible pieces” may have some sort of faux-innocent pleasantness about them, but they’re words as empty as the film itself.
The world of Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of romanticised poverty. Instead of giving an honest portrayal of life in the poorer stretches of Louisiana we get the film-version of photoshopping a supermodel’s blemishes; the basic structure of reality but sanitised and vacuous. Watch the trailer now on MEG.ie. In cinemas 19 October 2012.