The passionately praised Beasts of the Southern Wild, which I finally saw last night at Park City’s MARC, is everything its admirers have said it is. It’s a poetic, organic, at times ecstatic capturing of a hallucinatory Louisiana neverland called the Bathtub, down in the delta lowlands and swarming with all manner of life and aromas, and a community of scrappy, hand-to-mouth fringe-dwellers, hunters, jungle-tribe survivors, animal-eaters and relentless alcohol-guzzlers who live there.
It’s something to sink into and take a bath in on any number of dream-like, atmospheric levels, and a film you can smell and taste and feel like few others I can think of.
Directed and co-written by Benh Zeitlin, Beasts is much more of a naturalistic object d’art than a narrative-driven drama, at least as most of us define that term. The emphasis is on sensual naturalism-wallowing — lush, grassy, muddy, oozy, leafy, stinky, primeval, non-hygenic, slithery, watery, ants up your ass — with a few story shards linked together like paper clips.
The narrative, as such, focuses on six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and a third-act search for Hushpuppy’s mother.
Wallis is a hugely appealing young actress — beautiful, spirited, wide-eyed — and she pretty much carries the human-soul portions of the film. But Henry’s dad, who cares for Hushpuppy in his own callous and bullying way, is a brute and a drunk and mostly a drag to be around, and after the fifth or sixth scene in which he’s raging and yelling and guzzling booze, there’s a voice inside that starts saying “I don’t know how much more of this asshole I can take.”
Here comes the part of the review that the keepers of the precious Sundance flame are going to dislike. If you apply the classic Jim Hoberman “brief vacations” concept of a great film not only being a kind of “sacred text” but constituting a realm that a viewer would be happy to literally take up residence within, Beasts of the Southern Wild does not, for me, pass the test.
I’m sorry but after a while it began to feel too oozy and filthy and slimey and boozy. I don’t like hanging with people who drink all the time — alcoholism is boredom incarnate — and I don’t like walking around in oil-like, knee-deep mud and feeling bugs and snakes on my body as I sleep and running across the occasional alligator who’s looking to bite my leg off. I come from the suburbs of New Jersey, and I like taking hot showers and sipping wine in streetside cafes and sleeping on clean sheets and watching Blurays with my cats. And I hate snakes.
I not only didn’t want to live in the world of Beasts of the Southern Wild — a part of me wanted to escape after an hour or so. I wanted to walk or hitchhike to New Orleans, and catch a plane to Orlando and stay for a few days with Steve and Jackie Siegel, the stars of The Queen of Versailles. All right, scratch that…too extreme. But it made me think about clean roadside motels and rental cars and hot baths and power toothbrushes and all the comforts of home.
In short, I aesthetically respect and admire Beasts of the Southern Wild, but watching it almost turned me into a Republican. Until I left the theatre and went down to John Sloss‘s Cinetic Media party at Bing and I talked to some friends and started to feel like myself again.