A primary criticism of Beasts is whether Zeitlin, a Manhattan-born son of artists, and co-writer and originator Lucy Alibar, a daughter of Florida lawyers, have any ability or right to make a film about an extremely poor black family, or to write dialogue for them that’s laced with poor backwoods grammar, or to portray a father who lives with his daughter in neglectful squalor. At least Lee Daniels, director of Precious and its black poverty sob story, is black himself. What gets Beasts over is the specificity of the non-professional cast, especially Henry, a New Orleans native who lived through Katrina. The owner of a bakery before he landed on Zeitlin’s radar, Henry doesn’t fully absolve the film of its queasiness, but he distracts from it with his prickly, resilient, and ultimately soft-hearted performance. He brings a naturalism that makes the catfish noodling, crab-ripping, and other bayou tasks he performs look effortless.
Henry’s Wink is also a storyteller, and a natural antecedent to the boastfulness and bravado of his daughter. Details are embellished and broadened, and the effect is that Hushpuppy, as the latest in a long line of gator wranglers and large-living raconteurs, has internalized all this at the age of six or seven. Beasts understands that stories are for the teller and for the told, a way to transmit knowledge and experience but also to place oneself in the world. Wink tells Hushpuppy about her mother to give his daughter a feminine model but also to refresh his evident love for his missing wife. Hushpuppy makes drawings of her exploits for the future explorers she imagines will one day investigate the Bathtub, but also to build her self-esteem by demanding the world remember her. That kind of representational assertion makes up for the iffy proposition of Zeitlin and Alibar telling this story, especially when the characters are as big and memorable as they are.
It’s fitting that Zeitlin will eventually make an outright fantastical film in Wendy, because Beasts contains plenty of adventure and mystery. Before the flood, the Bathtub is a sweaty wonderland, drowning in fireworks and seafood and camaraderie. After, it’s a corrupted world of floating bordellos and plastic-clad health professionals made to look as threatening as the government scientists in ET. Combined with the quartet of aurochs that Hushpuppy imagines stampeding towards them, Beasts captures the shaky conception between magic and fantasy of a child’s world, where hiding from a fire doesn’t make it go away and a fried treat made with love doesn’t work as medicine.
The considerable strengths of Beasts of the Southern Wild bludgeon the viewer into submission. Whether it be Henry’s rawness or Wallis’ irrepressibility, the score or the successful (for once) voiceover, the gentle emotionality or the power of a small child discovering what they’re capable of, there are plenty of assets to choose from. This is a film that works on this viewer, authorship be damned. Count me among those disappointed in Zeitlin’s apparent lack of ability to grow from this considerable debut. B+