I had vaguely been following Beasts of the Southern Wild in the weeks leading up to its release, mostly with eyes half shut in resentment over twenty-nine-year-old first-time director Behn Zeitlin’s instant success. (“Hmpf. Beginner’s luck. Dude doesn’t even know how to spell his own name.”) Following a gushing article by my Twitter friend Chris Lee in The Daily Beast, which forecasts an Oscar nom for Beasts, I was forced to book my second-favorite seat, C-26 in the handicapped section of the Arclight Hollywood. My favorite seat, C-22, had already been nabbed. That’s how popular this piece is for the indie film lover.
All articles about Beasts are the same: how Zeitlin made this on a shoe-string budget, yet it still has the look and feel of a much larger film; how he auditioned four thousand little girls for the lead, Hushpuppy, but finally settled on Quvenzhané Wallis because she wouldn’t throw a water bottle at him in the audition, and therefore had a strong moral compass; how Zeitlin had never even heard of Fox Searchlight before the bidding war erupted at Sundance this year and his Little Film That Could was scooped up by that specialty distributor. So not only was I looking at a massive dose of beginner’s luck, it appears this purported wunderkind is some sort of naïve rube from New Orleans who not only can’t spell his own name, he’s just so gosh-darned pleased and dazzled by all the attention and accolades his little film is getting that…
Not so fast. Cue needle screeching across record, please.
My first indication that something was awry came from a tweet by Bret Easton Ellis a few hours before I went to see it: “At Academy screening of wildly overrated Beasts of the Southern Wild.” I felt like replying, “That’s pretty rich coming from the most wildly overrated writer in America. And trust you for dropping the fact you’re seeing it at AMPAS.” But the thing about Ellis is he knows full well who he is and his limitations; nobody beats him up more than he does himself. So I replied something like, “Aw, that’s a pity. Saw the trailer and it made me sob a bit in the back of my throat,” which is true. But it turns out that’s entirely because of the score, also composed by Zeitlin, which is written in those chords (I have no clue which ones) that force the sob from the back of your throat, those sort of John Williams/Ode to Joy-ish triumph-of-the-human-spirit-over-adversity chords. You know the ones. I still can’t get the fuckers out of my head and I saw the film two days ago.
I got to the Arclight for the tail end of the usher’s speech (there is one before every screening), and the moment the trailers came on, my heart began to sink. Ellis’ words began clanging in my head like the bells of Notre Dame sounding when Paris is burning. The trailers were for my least favorite genre after the B horror film: the quirky chatty American indie Sundance film about misfits, all of them shot on video with even less grace than normal for that genre.
And then the mediocrity began, literally a deluge in a junkyard. By the time I got to the title sequence six minutes into the film, my super ninja James Bond-trained Swiss Army filmmaker’s eyes and ears knew what had happened: I had been Sundanced, and I’d paid premium weekend rates at the best darned cinema in the world for the honor. I wanted to get up and smooth talk my way into exchanging my ticket for a midnighter of The Amazing Spider-Man. (All jokes aside, I did want to leave midway through the film, I was that bored and underwhelmed.)
It doesn’t surprise me that Zeitlin made “acclaimed short films” before Beasts because that’s exactly what it reminds me of: a short film festival darling, one that might even go on to win the Academy Award because of its heartfeltness and quirkiness, its resolutely dry-eyed, tear-jerking stance as a paean to human resilience. But a feature it isn’t; it’s an hour too long and the production values are unworthy of charging the same price of admission as Spider-Man. I know that is a boorish way of accounting when it comes to indie film production, one unfit for a seat-of-his-pants filmmaker, but films like Beasts make me think that way.
It also made me think, on the way out, that I will never go to the Sundance Festival as long as I live. My lawyer once said, “I know why you hate it so much, James: it’s because you don’t like the cold.” I laughed and nodded. The real reason is much harsher towards my colleagues in this niche of the industry, but it’s probably not such a good idea to belabor that point in a film review.
Indeed, if you stay for the end credits, they are stamped with all of the watermarks of the Bank of Sundance. This means even Zeitlin’s naiveté is nothing more than disingenuous, all of this gosh-darn-how-did-this-happen rube-ness part of their clever PR spin to turn this Cinderfella into the belle of the ball. But he is wearing no clothes.
The Festival’s own website buries the truth about the origins of Beasts in Zeitlin’s bio:
Benh’s first feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, participated in multiple artist programs at Sundance Institute, including the Directors Lab, and was supported by the San Francisco Film Society, Rooftop Films, NHK, and Cinereach.
And now he’s repped by William Morris Endeavor. Bless.
Back to the film itself. Yes, the script is charming, five-year-old Wallis’ voiceover precociously philosophical. But it relies mostly on voiceover to carry the entire film, which as any intro screenwriting class will tell you is the sign of narrative weakness. It is so sentimentally attached to that one moving line from the trailer, “In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub,” that it repeats it twice. And, yes, Wallis is mesmerizing to watch.
But the other performers aren’t. They are non-professionals and it is so glaring that Zeitlin has to pull a sort of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in post and chop it all up quickly or throw lines like “he squeezed my titty” off camera to hide the fact these people are too self-conscious to be believable. The point is they are meant to be such extreme misfits that they could have been background characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But Milos Forman, the director of that film, knew better than to cast truly insane people in speaking roles, and Zeitlin should have done the same. It was hubris to have done otherwise as a first-timer.
There are other production problems, namely the hogs with horns stuck to their heads to create the ‘orlock monsters, but… yeah well.
The entire premise of the film is also ludicrous: that we are supposed to feel sorry for a bunch of idiots who refuse to leave their shithole junkyard in a swamp before and after and after something like Hurricane Katrina sweeps in. (I had been under the impression the world of Beasts was some sort of Cloud Atlas-like clever dystopian future. Nope.)
When you have the power of Sundance Lab behind you, ain’t no big thing to pull something like this off on a shoestring budget; you can magic all sorts of favors and ridiculous deals and rates. I should have smelled a rat when I read that Zeitlin had auditioned four thousand little girls for the role. If that is true and he isn’t also factoring the normal wading through mounds of headshots, then he had a whole casting team behind him. Ain’t no shoestrings on that boot. (Yes, in-kind services and contributions count as part of a budget.)
I doubt Chris Lee is right. Despite the fact Beast did a whopping forty-two thousand per screen last weekend (by comparison, box office-winner Ted did twelve), I don’t think this is going to be the Little Film The Could during award season. I certainly hope not.
Killough rates Beasts with exactly what he said storming out of the Arclight: