August 14, 2012

Bayou beware

Now I know how last year’s Tree of Life haters felt. What happens when a film wins almost everyone else over but you feel immune? That’s how it went with Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut film from Benh Zeitlin that came with a major blast of publicity from Sundance and Cannes and seems to be regarded as one of the films you need to see at this year’s International Film Festival. Good points? There are some: a powerful and rare sense of how apocalyptic thinking might seem to a precocious child, mixing in environmental shock, melting polar ice caps and sudden floods, and a feel for what a Riddley Walker-ish salvage culture might look like, plus an unusually confident performance from young Quvenzhane Wallis as the bright child in question, named Hushpuppy. But that name – Hushpuppy – might clue you in to all the things that seem wrong, even cloying about this. The small world that the film constructs in the shadow of the levees, just outside New Orleans, is soaked in such an overbearingly obvious sense of the mythic, the pagan – its magic and folklore is so self-conscious, and seems ultimately flat and unpersuasive. Even the post-Malick visual style – attention-getting at first – comes to lack the depth or point of view you associate with Malick. You could call this magical realism in the wreckage of civilisation or something, but you could also call it a missed opportunity – minus any post-Katrina politics, you sense that the film is closer to a form of exotic tourism in poverty fetishism or even that most odious of movie clichés, the magical negro for white festival audiences. So count me among the naysayers.