Beasts of the Southern Wild is one that I very much want to like a whole lot. Powerfully imagined and boldly executed, Benh Zeitlin's film succeeds on many counts. It's only when the characters start talking and connecting dots that the film becomes smaller and less exceptional.
But let's stick to the good news, which is more interesting. A film as ambitious as this one deserves credit. Featuring a cast of unknowns, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an apocalyptic fever dream of the Mississippi Delta, haunted by the specter of Hurricane Katrina and our current ecological anxieties. We're introduced to a multi-ethnic band of Cajuns in the not-too-distant future, a group of defiant holdouts who hang on to their booze and crayfish and folk traditions even as their habitat vanishes around them. Never seeming to run out of cold beer, they carry on in their small community, located in a fast-disappearing wetland called "the Bathtub." Most of the local humans, we're told, live on the other side of a levee in a city meant to be New Orleans, kept safe in their cosseted suburban lives while the heroes of the film carry on as they always have.
It's a rather riveting premise, and it's also remarkable how we've come to a point where a futuristic, sci-fi scenario blends so neatly into the Delta ecosystem that is evolving rapidly before our eyes. (In fact, the film's principal shooting began on the day of the Deepwater Horizon explosion off the Gulf Coast.) The story is told through the bright eyes of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, a first-time actor who is a professional baker). Unbeknownst to Hushpuppy, Wink is dying, a fact he tries to conceal as he teaches her survival skills. She's going to need those survival skills, too, as their way of life is under siege from rising waters. Where's Hushpuppy's mother? She "swam away," we're told.
There's lots of water in this film, but there's a current of hooey running through it as well. Perhaps it's just me, but I find the idea of a preternaturally wise 6-year-old African-American narrator named Hushpuppy just a bit cloying. There's a mixture of authenticity and con artistry here that's reminiscent of George Washington, the debut feature of David Gordon Green that also trafficked in a stylized vision of Southern decay. Zeitlin also shares an obvious influence with Green: the twilight romanticism and voice-over narratives of Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, Days of Heaven).
Furthermore, the beasts of the film's title—long-extinct aurochs, lovingly described and vividly depicted—are not, and never were, beasts of the Southern wild (unlike, say, the saber-toothed cat, the long-nosed peccary or the giant short-faced bear). Nor were they the boar-like animals imagined by Hushpuppy. Instead, they were very large bovine creatures in Eurasia, the cud-chewing ancestors to all of today's domestic cows.
But fair enough: The aurochs exist in Hushpuppy's imagination. I have more trouble understanding the engineering predicament behind the people living in the Bathtub. The story's crisis occurs when a huge storm floods what little is left of these defiant Cajuns' low-lying home, after which the fresh water that nurtured the local catfish and crayfish becomes brackish and inhospitable. This is a real-enough phenomenon on the Gulf Coast as the wetlands have been allowed to erode, thus amplifying the types of storm surges that flooded New Orleans in 2005. But in the engineering cosmology of this film, the saltwater flooding of the Bathtub is the fault of a levee that is designed to keep the nearby New Orleans-like city dry. Puzzlingly, the Bathtub denizens reason that if the levee could be breached with dynamite they somehow have in their possession, the ocean of salt water will recede and life will be restored.
Let's just accept that this film is a phantasmagoria conjured up by adventurous artists, in which a young adult's philosophical thoughts are piped through the mouth of a little girl. From the sound of it, Beasts of the Southern Wild was a sprawling shoot, with changes to Lucy Alibar's script (which she adapted from her play that was set in her native Georgia) coming as warranted by circumstances. Perhaps as a result, the experience of watching it is akin to seeing the director's cut of Apocalypse Now—in particular, the long boat trip up the river, with its string of vivid but not necessarily germane episodes.
However, where alienation and nihilism were the themes of Coppola's Vietnam epic, Zeitlin's film seeks to celebrate Cajun resilience. Even as it sometimes lurches from one scene of heightened emotion to another, it delivers a vision of a culture that isn't easy to shake. Whether it's watching Wink teach Hushpuppy how to catch catfish barehanded, or a local teacher explaining the Holocene extinctions of animals, or the startling sight of motherless girls swimming to floating platforms that serve as combination catfish shacks and cathouses, the film plants us in its vivid, handmade world and mostly keeps us there.
As disjointed and sentimental as the film is, the memorable scenes deliver the thrill one feels in the presence of authentic cinema: the marriage of sound and image to create an extraordinary, unique and transporting experience. Many films that seek to reinvent cinema also overreach—Apocalypse Now is one example, and Werner Herzog's river-borne films Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are two more. Beasts of the Southern Wild also reaches for everything in sight, but for long periods, its grasp is true and strong.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Saying afloat, staying alive."