I have two different critiques of this film. One is based purely on whether or not it was a well-crafted film with memorable performances and an engaging story, and the other is based on how suburban white kids need to shut up.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is obviously a fantasy, and it offers a twist on the genre by having it set in a very familiar 21st Century-ish New Orleans in a somewhat flooded land called Bathtub, or as I call it, Not-New Orleans. When the world is thrown out of whack by a massive storm that causes the town to be completely flooded, a young girl by the name of Hushpuppy sets out with her father and company to bring stability back to their home. If you could call what they had "stability."
See, the people in Bathtub are poor. And like most poor people perceived by suburban white kids that free wheel on cargo trains every summer, they have way better lives in their poorness than we do. They reject healthcare because who needs it, they drink every day because it's not a crutch for the standards of living, they're just living in the moment! And Wink, Hushpuppy's father, well, smacking his daughter repeatedly in the face is just a trial for Hushpuppy to overcome for her to find her own inner strength!
Yes, life in the Bathtub, though not exactly glamorous, is something to be envied by us all, because they've totally rejected society, man.
Dear lord, where do I even begin.
I'm conflicted. When Spike Jonze made Where The Wild Things Are, I wanted to love it because of its gorgeous visuals and authenticity within its own fantasy world. But the film's lack of a true narrative, no engaging story, and a less-than-stellar performance by its lead made what could be a memorable experience into something forgettable and mediocre.
That's not the case with Beasts. For one, the performances are incredible. In fact, the acting alone is, I'm sure, the reason it has been so embraced by the Academy. Quvenzhané Wallis is an acting warrioress, and the amount of energy and presence she exudes is baffling considering her size. I hope she sticks to acting, and I hope she takes it in the right direction, because I think she has what it takes to transcend child-stardom and become a true actress. There's also Dwight Henry as Wink, Hushpuppy's troubled father. Like Wallis, Henry has no background in acting, and is in fact a baker in New Orleans, yet he delivers a powerful and tragic (albeit frustrating - I hate his character. More on that later.) performance.
The story is about finding one's inner strength while searching for stability in a world turned upside down. The story may not make sense at first but the more I dwelled on it the more sense it made, and I understood the point. And unlike Where The Wild Things Are, it had a direction to accompany the amazing visual language and gorgeous score.
Having said that…
There is nothing charming about poverty. It isn't kitschy or cute, and I found the relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy way too disturbing, and thought that it hit way too close to home for me to even begin to root or even feel for a character like Wink. I know I'm letting my moral flag fly with this one, and I'll most likely be looked at as oversensitive. But the presentation of their relationship isn't cautionary, it isn't used to display the dangers of abuse, but as a way of life that we should accept and celebrate, because it's part of what molds Hushpuppy on her journey. And I hate that. I feel like this a prevailing theme in cinema, television, literature, hell, even comics, that the only way a woman can become strong and independent is to have the shit beat out of her by someone abusive and controlling. I'm sure Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar were well-intentioned, but to me they missed the mark. I think they told a good story, and I think they crafted a well-made film, but it's subtext is what bothers me, and the representation of America's poor that a lot of suburban white kids completely misconstrue. It's on par with the college kid that travels to Africa and takes hundreds of pictures of themselves holding malnourished babies, only to go home two weeks later and return to their spin classes and Pinterest parties.
I'm glad that the Academy continues to recognize films of this scope, as this is a prime example of what I would consider to be a true independent film, and I continue to support that. But even though it's well-made, I can't completely support the film's views. Though I'm sure it is being recognized for its performances and visual language, I'm not so naive to think the Academy isn't once again patting themselves on their backs and reveling in their misguided views and exaggerated affection for the downtrodden of this country, and even the world.