If there is an unofficial award for most simultaneously brilliant and annoying film of the year this is the runaway winner. Arriving on a tidal wave of critical love, this highly unusual and idiosyncratic film is probably the most distinctive US indie debut since Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997). It has flashes of absolute genius and a sensational opening. It’s also unfocused, stagey and powered by a relentless (often brilliant) soundtrack that you wish at times would simply cease for just a moment.
The setting is ‘the bathtub’, a coastal Louisiana community struggling to survive, a wilderness of endless impoverishment, isolated from society and practically flooded. The spirit of its dwellers though is proud and fierce. The Katrina parallels are stark but actually not in any way as overwrought as you may expect. In this rugged terrain a young child Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) live and try to survive, building a floating shelter that will sustain them.
A storm is coming, which will almost certainly wipe away the strands of civilisation that already teeter on the brink of destruction. Dwellings are primitive and ramshackle and appear on the verge of collapse or subsidence at any point. Hushpuppy’s indomitable spirit keeps her strong. She can also communicate with animals and some mythic ‘beasts’(in the film’s boldest and most outlandish conceit). It is through her eyes and voice that we experience this film.
There are some fairly obvious influences at play here, though the film is startlingly original creation of a self-contained universe. Terence Malick is the obvious touchstone (indeed you could say this is a New Orleans Badlands meets Where The Wild Things Are) and there are hints of Werner Herzog’s early work. A lighter, cuddlier Herzog perhaps.
The film has been accused by some of being cloying and cutesy. I’m not so sure there’s anything cloying about the violence metered out to Hushpuppy by wink, fuelled by alcohol and also a sense of primitive self-survival. Hushpuppy herself was five at the beginning of casting. Wallis’ performance is both naturalistic and strangely affected and the same goes for Beasts as a movie. There’s a sense that director Benh Zeitlin has indulged the source a little too freely (it is based on a play). The preternatural wisdom of Hushpuppy’s wide eyed Tree of Life style voice-over is mostly well deployed but at times you wish Zeitlin would let the remarkable visuals do the storytelling. The swirly camera gets a bit much and the soundtrack is pretty much relentless, creating a sense of nausea as much as wonderment.
But really as a debut this is a near-miraculous, vital work. This year has produced some remarkable, fresh visions and new attempts at film storytelling. Beasts is right up there with the unclassifiable likes of Kosmos, Tabu and Holy Motors. You have to admire this bold, DIY approach. It’s ragged because of how it came into being. Like the beasts of the title the film is often lumbering and heavy but also remarkably fleet of foot and strangely wonderful. A crazy alchemy with moments of transcendence. And slightly annoying. Either way you have to see this.