Monday, March 25, 2013

DVD of the Week: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Sometimes there are films that I like despite the fact that they are probably rubbish. Films where the acting is wooden, the direction is functional and the script is turgid, but somehow has that magic of cinema that works regardless. Highlander springs to mind, and a crueler person than I could also say something like Star Wars. Actually genre flicks in general, maybe, but I digress. On the other side of the coin are the crafted masterworks that leave me cold; cinema as art, or cinema as social commentary, which often seems to produce films I can appreciate, rather than enjoy. My ideal film, therefore, would probably fit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, mixing craft with warmth and spectacle.

Which brings me to Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that sits cheerfully at the cinema-as-art end of the spectrum. At some near-future point, inhabitants of "the Bathtub" are facing the harsh fact that rising sea temperatures and fierce storms are going to drown their small community, a situation made worse by a levee protecting the inland areas. The story follows Hushpuppy, a young girl from the Bathtub living with her father, as the storms come, and he starts to get ill. At it's core, Beasts of the Southern Wild is about growing up, about finding your place in the world (although the pre-pubescent Hushpuppy is a lot younger than the traditional mid-teen protagonist for this sort of story) and the sobering realisation that your parents are human and therefore mortal.

In many ways, I'm not sure I was totally sold on the film. It has a lovely dream-like quality where time passes very fluidly, and the direction focuses on odd features of the houses or terrain, all of which gives it a lulling sense of wonder. Which means that its big emotional denouement with the Aurochs, whilst pretty telegraphed, doesn't feel out of place with the rest of the film. But at the same time the pacing, both scene to scene and across the film, is a little too loose, and in many ways it feels like a series of loosely connected vignettes, rather than a coherent narrative. Structurally, that sort of thing can work fine, but I'm not sure there is enough going on to link those vignettes, either thematically or narratively, for them to get away with it.

That said, Quvenzhan√© Wallis is utterly transfixing as Hushpuppy. I'm not surprised she got nominated for an Oscar because it's a fantastic performance, holding the entire film together. The rest of the cast is pretty decent, too, but they revolve around her, and without her the film wouldn't work at all. The other thing that the film has going for it is that occasionally it gives you some beautifully realized moments, such as the sparklers shot used on the poster or the dreamy, soft-focus section in a club towards the end of the film.

I don't think its enough for me though. Beasts of the Southern Wild isn't a bad film, and I suspect how much you get out of it will depend largely on where you tastes in cinema lie. It keeps a lot of itself back in metaphor and subtext, being about "stuff" - a lot of stuff, actually - but for me all that metaphor and subtext holds back a central narrative and reduces any emotive punch the film was trying to deliver at the end. I appreciated it more than I enjoyed it, although that's not so say that appreciation isn't its own reward.