Every year, a handful of smaller films come out that rely on critical acclaim to find an audience. As a critic, you walk a fine line between trying to help those smaller, worthy films find an audience, and making sure the films you champion are worthy, to keep from burning your audience and becoming the boy who cried wolf, making film critics even more irrelevant than we already are. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a critic-bait film that’s already won a Camera D’or at Cannes, Best Narrative Film at the LA Film Festival, and been nominated for Best Film at the Independent Spirit Awards. Here’s why the critics whiffed on this one.
As an MGMT video, Beasts of the Southern Wild is pretty good. It’s got soaring music, pretty cinematography, fantastical imagery that borrows heavily from Where the Wild Things Are, an impossibly cute little girl, and deep south swamp locations exotic to urbanized yankees like me (“look, crawdaddies! Isn’t that a funny word, Brent? ‘Crawdaddies?’”). But if you can see past the craft, this tale of deep south swamp hobos and feral children that eat cat food has all the depth of one of those Levis slam poetry commercials. I thought we weren’t supposed to fall for the Magic Negro and the Noble Savage anymore? Yet here it is, a whole movie full of them, plus folksy Cajuns who can’t open their mouths without homespun crypticisms aw shucksing their way out.
“Hushpuppy” (yes, the main character’s name is Hushpuppy) is the adorable little black girl in question (it really cannot be overstated how cute she is), played by spell-check nightmare Quvenzhané Wallis when she was just five years old (an impressive performance, to be sure). Hushpuppy lives with her daddy beyond the levees in a swampy section of rural Louisiana called “The Bathtub.” Or as Hushpuppy narrates it to us, “I’m recording it for the scientists in the future. In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”