Some critics really believe this is the best picture of 2012. I don’t blame them; I blame hypoxia from the rarefied air of Sundance, and intoxication from the pricey alcohol served there after screenings. This is not the best picture of 2012. That would be Life of Pi, followed closely by Lincoln. But at Sundance, small movies become big primarily through amplification in the cocktail-party echo chamber. They become beloved not in spite of small budgets and incomplete scripts, but because of those shortcomings.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the story of a plucky 6-year-old essentially raising herself in a swampy area south of New Orleans called “The Bathtub.” She has a dad who is the sum of all jerks, and a motley crew of adult acquaintances whose lives center around booze, seafood and fireworks. When a tropical storm submerges their sea-level surroundings (no way to see that coming), they band together and resist any efforts to relocate them to a safer, healthier place.
We’re supposed to cheer the clan’s primitive freedom over the order of civilization, but civilization begins to look pretty good in the few scenes where it makes an appearance. Throughout, the heroine Hushpuppy provides wise narrative asides about the universe, all of which sound a bit too metaphysical to be coming from a child even twice her age. They sound, in fact, like the wisdom of a 30-something screen writer.
Again, Quvenzhane Wallis is a strong little actress, and the parts of this movie that work do so because of her. She is a force on the screen and probably has a nice career ahead of her. But the story, which somehow manages to be cloying despite all the mud and squalor, creates only vague sympathy for her character, and none at all for her neighbors.
SPOILER ALERT: Near the end of the movie, Hushpuppy’s adult companions watch as she sets her dead father’s body alight and sends it floating downriver in the “boat” he fashioned from the cargo box of a pickup truck. The scene is supposed to invoke some sense of Viking nobility, but all I could think of is the poor sap who would later encounter the smoking hulk bumping up against his dock. “Wait a minute; are these charred human remains? WTF?”
That’s the problem with Beasts of the Southern Wild: Its “magical” aspects don’t juxtapose well with the nonmagical world it portrays in such gritty detail. Neither imparts any meaning to the other. You can’t help but cheer for a precocious little kid going it alone in a hard world, but the whole thing just feels contrived. Dave Bob says get it via Netflix, and tell me what you think.