Beasts of the Southern Wild has been adored by many critics ever since it first showed up at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. There are many who believe it will even earn a Best Picture nomination next month. All this talk lead to much anticipation to see what was being called one of the best films of the year, but now that I’ve finally seen it, I unfortunately have to be one of the naysayers that doesn’t see what all the Best Picture talk is about. It’s certainly not a bad film, but neither can I say that it’s particularly good.
The film tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who lives with her father in a Louisiana bayou called “The Bathtub.” It’s a rundown community that’s about to face a storm, causing most to want to evacuate. However, Hushpuppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry), refuses to leave his home, despite being sick as well. After the storm comes and floods the area, Hushpuppy and Wink hop in a makeshift boat and search for others who stayed behind, eventually finding a group of their neighbors.
They celebrate having made it through the storm, but they also realize that recovery will be difficult. Wink decides that the best thing to do is to destroy the levee that causes flooding in their community so that they can return home. Even with this accomplished, it’s not long before they are forcefully evacuated from “The Bathtub” to a shelter. This is where it’s discovered that Wink’s condition is much worse than originally thought. He must either have surgery or risk death. However, despite his condition, his first thought, like everyone else’s, is to return home.
Every year, there seems to be one or two films that the critics swarm with praise that I just can’t get behind. Last year, it was The Descendants. The year before that, it was The Fighter and Winter’s Bone. This year, there’s been The Master and now this. Beasts has one or two things going for it, such as the film’s amazing look. With the film being told partly through Hushpuppy’s imagination, we are treated to some fascinating imagery, such as a group of ancient beasts known as aurochs running wild in their community. There’s also Ben Richardson’s intriguing cinematography that highlights the scenery and production design.
All that being said, my main criteria for reviewing a film has always been how good the story is and how well it’s told, and that’s exactly where Beasts begins to falter. The story here is so scattershot that it ends up not having much of an impact, while also making it very hard to get engaged with.
The writers (Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin) try to pull this story in so many directions that the whole thing ends up getting lost in the mix. It starts off trying to be about life in “The Bathtub” through the eyes of this little girl, then it wants to be about her sick father and the upcoming storm. Meanwhile, it’s trying to be about the relationship between Hushpuppy and her father, and eventually the rest of the community as they face the impact of the storm. This continues as they are evacuated against their will, but then the film takes one final random turn as Hushpuppy runs off with a group of kids in an attempt to find her mother.
If there’s one thing that all these loose threads make clear, it’s that this film lacks focus. If the filmmakers had taken the time to develop one or two of these storylines, then there could have been an engaging movie here, but trying to jam all of them into one film only serves to suffocate them all. Personally, I would have loved to see the story that has Hushpuppy trying to deal with her rough life by escaping into her imagination. Sure, we’ve seen the same thing in Pan’s Labyrinth, but this is a completely different time and place that could have made great use of the scenario.
The storyline about Hushpuppy’s relationship with her dad would have also made for a rather interesting film. These two have been roughing it for a while, and have had to deal with the departure of their third family member. There could have been a very intriguing and emotional story to come out of this thread if the filmmakers had chosen to focus on it.
As I said, this isn’t a bad film. It’s a rather beautiful piece of filmmaking. Unfortunately, from a narrative standpoint, it gets too bogged down to be engaging, making it a bit of a slog to get through as the multiple storylines pull you in several directions. What could have been a really intriguing film merely ends up getting lost in the shuffle.
Turning now to the Blu-Ray itself, the film is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that is curiously duller than most other presentations. You can still see the movie just fine, but you’ll also notice that the picture looks somewhat blurry at times. Some may feel that this adds a grungy quality that helps put you right there with the characters, but I found it a bit distracting. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is of better quality than the video. It’s another one of those audio tracks that’s a little on the soft side, but nothing that turning up the volume a bit more than usual won’t fix.
Special features on the disc include:
- The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild
- Deleted Scenes with Commentary from Director Benh Zeitlin
- Music Featurette
- The Aurochs Featurette
- Glory At Sea – A 2008 short film from Director Benh Zeitlin
The “Making of” contains a decent amount about how certain aspects of the film were done such as the storm and the aurochs. It even contains a little bit about how the film was put together. However, a large part of the 22 minutes is simply taken up with behind the scenes footage of the cast and crew shooting the film. This makes for an interesting pairing with the Auditions footage that feature interviews and rehearsals with Wallis and Henry.
The 14 minutes of deleted scenes offer you an interesting look at what was left on the cutting room floor. I found it interesting that Zeitlin himself said that some of these scenes would have taken the film in more directions, which still ended up being the main problem in the final cut. These show that, at the very least, he noticed the beginnings of this problem and started to fix it.
The music and the Aurochs featurettes aren’t particularly worth the time to watch, especially since they are rather short and don’t go really go into any detail. Plus there’s the fact that the making of the aurochs is already covered pretty well in the “Making of” featurette. Last up is a short film that Zeitlin made back in 2008 called Glory At Sea, which tells of a flood victim who builds a boat to try to return to where the flood occurred. Like Beasts, it’s very well shot, but its narrative is rather lacking. While some of these extras aren’t particularly good, the first three make it a decent collection.
Overall, due to the wandering, scattershot nature of the film, I can’t fully recommend the Blu-Ray. I’ve already mentioned that Zeitlin seemed to notice that this was a problem when he was editing the film, which makes it a shame that he didn’t go further to bring the film’s true story into focus, which he claims is the relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink. Despite the beautiful nature of the film, this is one that simply didn’t live up to the hype.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.
Beasts of the Southern Wild looks amazing, but it appears that that's where most of the effort towards the film went. The writers spread the narrative out so much that the film ends up having little impact, making this a visual feast that you'll forget about pretty quickly.