One of the best films to play at Sundance in two decades? I don’t think so. Admittedly, I’m no Manohla Dargis, who made such a pronounced vote of confidence for the rough-and-tumble fantastical indie feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which was a triple threat at this year’s Sundance, winning the Grand Jury Prize, a Fox Searchlight deal, and was ranked the number one film of the fest by many critics. Consider this the beginning of the backlash.
Now I’m not someone who likes to put down ambitious indie cinema made with an original and idiosyncratic vision. I liked “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” calling it “an imaginative and bold vision, filled with plenty of memorable images” in my Screen review. But I didn’t love it. And like last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner “Like Crazy,” I’m somewhat confounded by the group-think-like passion that has emerged for the film since before it even showed. At the world premiere, there was so much buzz and excitement at the Eccles theater that it seemed like the movie had already won over the audience before it even started. Will everyone’s love for the film subside a bit when they come down from the high-altitudes of Park City? I hope so.
Because if “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is going to find an audience during its release, I don’t think it’s going to be doing the film any favors if it’s hyped. There’s a lot of good things about the film, but I also found a number of holes. My biggest criticism was this: “Zeitlin has created a fully imagined fantasy world, but he rarely allows the viewer to emotionally inhabit it,” as I wrote.
While the story’s heart lies in the relationship between the expressive adorable little star Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry), I felt the characters—and their setting—remain too much at a distance. Now I know there were plenty of Sundance viewers who felt a stronger emotional connection to the material than I, but I can’t discount my own experience of the film. There’s a lot to look at, for sure, but narratively, it’s wild and woolly, not unlike some Terry Gilliam flight of fancy, and I just don’t believe it coheres. Come on, did you all really buy the bit with the explosives stuffed in the crocodile?