Update early 2019:
In my original review I referred to this as cinematic rock ‘n’ roll, but Beasts of the Southern Wild is really more in the spirit of its ancestor, a bayou spiritual. Although it could be accused of wielding the filmmaker’s gaze to exoticize impoverished communities, it doesn’t fetishize its access to marginalized communities, and although it burrows right into the soul of a marginalized child with a fantastical charge, it preserves her opacity and doesn’t flaunt its access to her. Both a lament and an ecstasy, this folksy fairytale inhabits the spirit and follows in the wake of over a century of African-American folktales which both cross-examine the social tapestry, eulogize the lost dreams of the unheard, and catalyze their future aspirations.
Loyal to reality without being a simple duplication, Beasts of the Southern Wild porously flows from naturalism to fantasy without necessarily mapping the two in any Manichean fashion. Although it’s a little too preoccupied with its own inexorable fantasy at times, it’s seldom (or never) precocious, and, increasingly, it strikes me not as entombed within appropriated affectations but as inspired by an incredibly pregnant, overflowing history of marginalized populations reclaiming cultural (and pop-cultural) space denied them in manifold ways. It’s a tender but tough film, strange but not estranging, and it floods our synapses with a poetry that dredges-up submerged epistemologies from the past without forgetting how swampy its truths, and ours, are. Or how raging, tangled, and torturous the currents of the present can’t but be.
And what currents! The film is a vaporous tapestry, its restless vulgarities and energies diffusing into the ether, resulting in a film that is weighty but never weighted-down, always able to fluidly outflank any potential distrust with sheer, uncynical cinematic sublimity, shaded and even shadowed by gusts of self-awareness, premonitions of a wider world. It dazes us with its earth-ravaged beauty, somehow both transcendent and realist, exorcizing so many implacable spirits and unsettled energies, from Hurston to Baldwin to Malick, all of whom make perhaps strange bedfellows, but all both kindred in their dialectics of mysticism and materiality, spiritual and secular radiance, and Beasts of the Southern Wild summons their collective ethos and stays true to their spirits partially by disobeying them and materializing its own adjacent but not adherent attitudes.
It also shares those authors’ sometimes offhand toward the comingling of the personal and the political. Although it certainly inclines toward anarcho-syndicalism, or at least letting alternative communities be on their own terms, it doesn’t demonize the government so much as construe them as a foreign, monolithic interloper, with all the connotations that entails. It’s certainly aware that the government’s interventions into marginalized communities tend toward the palliative, at best, and the prejudicial and paternalistic, at worst. Although Beasts is mostly a parable of personal becoming, it’s also a plea to reconsider the hegemony of an empathetic but sometimes unthinking system which, the film ponders, cannot colonize all walks of life.
Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like fightin’ words to the modern motion picture industry, a line in the sand with aesthetic-less lo-fi indies and sanded-off, corporate Oscarbait on one side, and Beasts carnivorously lurking on the other. It is above all a very instinctive motion picture, primordial and sensuous and rebellious in a way that eschews the intellectual, the analytic, and the rational for a burst of bedlam and commotion that feels, if not entirely structurally sound, all the more emotionally true for how close it comes to bursting. It’s cinematic rock ‘n’ roll. Continue reading