Verdict: The drivel runs through it Rating: No stars
Arriving here on a tsunami of enthusiastic acclaim is Beasts Of The Southern Wild, a film shot in Louisiana with non-professional actors.
It has won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, and attracts five-star reviews wherever it goes.
It’s absolutely dreadful, but will appeal to the prejudices of anyone who found Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life a timeless masterpiece or David Gordon Green’s bore-athon George Washington life-affirming.
Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy in the film that patronises America's rural poor
The title makes Beasts sound like a nature film, but instead it’s a memorably daft collision of social realism and Left-wing wishful thinking. The 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin has come up with smug liberal hokum that patronises its subject matter, America’s rural poor.
The setting is a fictitious area of Louisiana called the Bathtub. A six-year-old black girl nicknamed Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her abusive, alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry) inhabit neighbouring shacks, preparing — or rather not preparing — for a violent storm to flood their shanty village. When disaster strikes, it’s the brave little girl who brings the cosily anarchic locals together.
This is meant to be a story of survival and fortitude, though I can’t say I bought any of it.
Hushpuppy is meant to be precocious but really she’s precious. She delivers would-be poetic pronouncements about her place in the universe that suggest she may have been exposed to Scientology.
Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry, who plays alcoholic Wink, star in the film which wowed critics but bored Chris Tooky
How far you respond to her depends on what you make of her windy declarations, which include: ‘The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right’, and ‘I see that I’m a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes things right’.
Some sayings float off into the downright meaningless: ‘When it all goes quiet behind my eyes I see everything that made me, flying around in invisible pieces.’
This nonsensical philosophising by a supposedly down-to-earth, uneducated child, especially when accompanied by the director’s repellently schlocky, string-laden score, made me feel I was being sold a fake view of infancy and life.
Despite Hushpuppy’s lack of education, she is concerned about global warming, and has visions of Antarctica crumbling. She also has the power to conjure up huge prehistoric creatures called aurochs, though to my untutored eye they look exactly like wild boar with horns stuck on them. These exist in the film purely so she can awe them all with her goodness — though I note she doesn’t try the same with the local alligators.
The screenplay doesn’t have a credible narrative — for example, the negligent father changes character abruptly halfway through. It simply drifts on a self-created tide of optimistic complacency. Its one idea of happiness is to have the little girl embraced by a sisterhood of warm-hearted, motherly prostitutes, the kind you see a lot of in films.
The look of the film is art-house squalor, and the slum dwellings are triumphs of contrived recycling.
Cinematographer Ben Richardson goes for a lot of jittery camera movement and out-of-focus shots to give everything a semblance of realism, but it looks like picturesque poverty.
The film stinks of the worst sort of cultural tourism. It suggests the poor are happy to live in slums because they don’t know better and wouldn’t appreciate money, medicine and sanitation if they had it.
It’s so infatuated with its fake authenticity, it refuses to countenance the socio-political realities that lie beneath.
It is, in short, pernicious rubbish — but that doesn’t mean it won’t get nominated for the best film Oscar. In the same way that Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close sentimentalised 9/11 by using a child’s-eye view to avoid addressing any of the troubling issues, this film does an identical job on Hurricane Katrina.