In Behn Zeitlin’s debut film Beasts of the Southern Wild, his main character is a precocious, wise beyond her years 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, who spends much of the film detailing the ways in which the universe works. However, her persistent mantra of, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right” is as accurate as it is flawed: The universe—and by universe, I assume Zeitlin means society and culture—does require harmony in order to function perfectly, but the universe—indeed, society—can never achieve this harmony because of the many disparate perspectives, experiences, and opinions bouncing around it. The relativism that constitutes the human experience can never allow for such a nebulous quality as “perfect harmony” because one person’s definition of a perfection may well be vastly different someone else’s.
I think this conundrum also applies to the film itself and, by extension, the critical reaction to it. The film has been praised and panned with equal vigor, with some praising it “really wonderful” (Glenn Kenny) and “a passionate and unruly explosion of Americana,” (AO Scott) and others panning it for being “enraptured by [its] own imagery” (Richard Brody), or, simply “bullshit” (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky). Underlying the vast and varied opinions is a special issue, one that isn’t addressed nearly enough in current American criticism: What do we expect of our young filmmakers?
At the risk of sounding derivative, there seems to be two sorts of young independent filmmakers working today: Those who have embraced burgeoning technologies and are readily taking advantage of the wealth of resources currently available to them and those who venture outside of their immediate milieu in examination of more lofty themes Neither sect is making anything that I’d call daringly original; in fact, both are guilty, in one way or another, of a sort of myopia: one that narrows their focus to either masturbatory navel gazing or reductive postulation of arcane subjects. In other words, your Joe Swanbergs versus your Duncan Joneses.
The fact of the matter is there’s a line between the investigative and the self-serving, the ambitious and the pretentious. The unique problem with Beasts of the Southern Wild is that it’s each of these things in equal measure, which explains the polemic responses. When you consider their highly disparate opinions on the work of the aforementioned Joe Swanberg, it makes sense that Brody (pro-Swanberg) would reproach Beasts for being “enraptured by [its] own imagery” while Kenny (anti-Swanberg) would praise said imagery for being “striking, surprising and somehow never off-key.”
Beasts of the Southern wild is both exactly what we need in independent filmmaking and everything that’s wrong with it at the same time. The debate it’s inspiring will, ultimately, transcend the film itself and turn into something less categorical than whether or not it’s any good. It will soon become the watermark of where filmmaking is going in the 21st century, the poster child for Joneses or the whipping boy of the Swanbergs.
Personally, I find this disheartening. I think there’s a lot of good in the film as well as in Zeitlin—the fact that he shot the thing on 16mm alone earns him brownie points. His inquisitive nature and aversion to homage is a welcoming beacon among the endless droves of complacency and intertextualism. But at the same time, Beasts of the Southern Wild is so awash with metaphor, so imbued with allegory that it ultimately says nothing of any real substance. I’m no Kaelist, but her infamous takedown of Malick’s Days of Heaven feels somewhat applicable here.
Is there a middle ground? I’d like to think so, but I’m increasingly doubtful. We’d need a perfect harmony, after all.