Unfortunately for a film whose title features the words "Beasts," "Southern," and "Wild," Benh Zeitlin's debut doesn't very much truly capture the spirit any of those things. It hits all the marks it has to in order to be a mass-appeal success. Employing starkly enervating vibraphone music and the occasional jittery camera on the technical end, it trusts most of its responsibilities to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry (who will appear in Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years a Slave"). These are (previously non-)actors who at times are capable of excellent things but at times are given things to do that really exasperated me as a filmgoer. For me, this is a largely unnecessary work that provides some minute perspective but for the most part stirs up a bunch of clatter while trying to pull the occasional heartstring.
It takes place apparently during Hurricane Katrina, on an intensely communal island called The Bathtub off the Louisiana mainland. Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry) live in a couple of dilapidated dwellings with a lot of animals and have great kinship with their neighbors. Most people would call this squalor or poverty, but the two relish it and sense of place and community that these people have far surpasses many of those with a more conventional upbringing. The film seems too anxious to get moving, though, and I for one didn't get enough of this environment (save one sequence towards the start, one of only a few, that lives up to the title's promise of craziness) to feel ingrained in the movie. But Zeitlin doesn't seem too concerned with fleshing things out, and thus he lost me pretty early on. The rest of the film concerns their weathering of the extreme storm, and how they stay, and how it's frowned upon to stay. Also the human world (including health) intruding upon their seclusion. This could have been very interesting and engaging, but instead it feels flat and offhand (even if these are people who throw crabs on the table and say "pussy" and are in general "colorful").
Zeitlin and his screenwriting partner Lucy Alibar are pretty dramatically lazy all around, giving his heroine an absent mother and lines of "charming," essentially obvious narration to string things together. He also throws in some legendary creatures that seem to have no effect on the film other than to bloat the budget and to give some weight to Hushpuppy's bouts of stoicism. Sure, there is some real tenderness here at times, but that's largely due to Wallis and Henry (though there are some good lines at times). Nowhere near as restless as it should be, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is problematic and ultimately fits right into the tradition of mediocre Sundance pictures. To say it's a major highlight of the independent festival's history is to discredit works like Shane Carruth's "Primer." (Even more outrageous may be the fact that it won the Camera d'Or for Best First Film at Cannes.) C