Beasts of the Southern Wild is set in a Katrina-era marshland somewhere south of New Orleans, but cinephiles may have a hard time watching it without picturing Texas farmland during World War I. The similarities between Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, and Days of Heaven, by Terrence Malick, are obvious from the start. Both demonstrate awestruck respect for nature. Both observe tight-knit multi-racial communities of people who have little material wealth but an abundance of joie de vivre. And, perhaps most striking, both are narrated by young girls simultaneously at the center of their adventures yet mostly helpless to shape them who express themselves in free-verse voice-over ramblings that straddle the line between the inane and the profound. Yet what sets these films apart is more striking than what aligns them: Days of Heaven, with its predilection for the pink-and-blue-hued beauty of magic hour, is a delicious feast for the eyes, while the cinematography of Beasts of the Southern Wild will threaten to make you lose your lunch.
What a gruesome film this is. Not because of the moist and dirty shantytown called the Bathtub, or the filthy (and no doubt stinky) characters who inhabit it. Not because of the grim themes of poverty, loss and loneliness. Not even because of the close-ups of the main character's cooked cat-food cuisine. Just because of the moviemaking. Filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier are notorious for making pictures that dare audiences to sit through them, but this is a different sort of cinematic assault, because here it isn't the content that's off-putting but our access to it. The vast majority of Zeitlin's film, with cinematography by Ben Richardson, is presented in the shakycam aesthetic most popularly associated with Paul Greengrass' frenetic Jason Bourne movies or "found film" genre precedent-setter The Blair Witch Project. And while those pictures have clear thematic motivations (or justifications, if you prefer) for eschewing the tripod, there seems to be no artistic incentive for Beasts to go the route of Obviously Handheld unless it's to wrap the movie in low-budget-indie trappings that might lower audience expectations.
Is this a low-budget indie? No doubt. And if the film's modest budget was a genuine obstacle to employing fixed camerawork, so be it. But those financial constraints of production don't change how we see what was produced, and the herky-jerky camerawork of Beasts is an obstacle to simply watching the movie, never mind spotting what's going on beneath its grotesque surface. Written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, Beasts chronicles the adventures of a sweet afroed girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her crusty father, Wink (Dwight Henry). There's a fire and a flood, there's an expedition to blow up a levee and there are several searches for food, but mostly there's Hushpuppy narrating her odd quasi-wisdom ("When you're small, you've gotta fix what you can...") between episodes of being barked at by her irritable dad, who feeds her along with the pets and as often as not calls her "man." In almost any other movie, Wink would be a nightmarish father, volatile and unnecessarily cruel, but his cute daughter doesn't seem to mind his antics, and for a girl who would otherwise have nothing, he's something, so the movie gives him a pass, in large part thanks to Richardson's bobbing-and-weaving camera, which makes it difficult to stare into the face of Wink's rage.
The movie's message is equally difficult to locate. First and foremost, Beasts appears to be an ode to the people of New Orleans' 9th Ward, who have little but one another and an admirable willingness to go on, but Zeitlin over-romanticizes these stubborn, combative, uneducated survivors to the point that their own faults simultaneously function as symbols of triumph; Beasts seems to want us to wring our hands over the horrors of their lifestyle while at the same time applauding their unwillingness to change. Meanwhile, the narrative, if you can call it that, is a gnarled maze of dead ends, much like the flooded Bathtub. Characters are undeveloped. Themes are half-baked. And, saddest of all, the most fantastic elements of the film are also the ones that float adrift of everything else, namely an episode in which Hushpuppy spends an evening dancing with prostitutes on a floating barge and a sequence in which the mysterious and awesome aurochs (here played by pigs dressed up as Maurice Sendak's wild things) rumble into the Bathtub.
With sweet little Hushpuppy bravely going forth, trying to hear the heartbeat of the world around her, and with the Zeitlin and Dan Romer score bursting with the spirit of Mardi Gras, one can't help but want to be touched by the magic spell that Zeitlin is so clearly trying to conjure. Coming out of Sundance and Cannes, where the film delighted many critics and audiences, much has been made of the film's modest budget and Zeitlin's use of non-professional actors — hype about the latter being especially peculiar as Wallis is concerned, given that most 6-year-olds don't have particularly extensive resumes, and given that the choppiness of Beasts' scene structure doesn't provide much opportunity for what we usually think of as "acting." It's as if we're supposed to forgive the film's shortcomings, just like the Zeitlin overlooks those of his characters, because Beasts comes from modest means. But there's a difference between being stuck in the Bathtub and settling for it, just like there's a difference between marketing a touching father-daughter relationship and dramatizing one. In spite of the on-screen mess, Zeitlin manages to flash Malickian potential, just as David Gordon Green did before him. But while waves of cinematic splendor occasionally lap up onto the shore of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the tide never rises.