I was not a big fan of writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s first movie, 2012’s indie darling and surprise Oscar contender, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Some choice highlights from my mixed review include: “This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message…. [it] offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register… This is just a swampy mess of a movie, one that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. It’s admirable from a technical standpoint but, as a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing.” So as you can see, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken that Zeitlin took eight years for his follow-up, Wendy, a loose reinterpretation of the Peter Pan story. It has many of the same flaws as Beasts and not enough of its few virtues, which means Wendy is its own lost movie experience.
We follow a group of children from a working-class diner waitress in small-town Louisiana. They watch the trains speed by on the neighboring tracks and dream of far-off adventures. Wendy (Devin France) and her two younger twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naqui) sneak off one night onto a passing train and meet Peter (Yashua Mack), a boy who promises to guide them to a magical island where they will never grow old as long as they believe in Mother, the spirit of the island and embodied as a giant glowing fish. Wendy enjoys the freedom but worries if she’ll ever see her mother again and if this extended excursion is worth that level of sacrifice.
Maybe I’m just going through Peter Pan fatigue or maybe this latest variation on the mythology of J.M. Barrie just failed to provide any really thorough message, theme, or entry point of interest for me. Wendy seems to be going for whimsy and flights of fancy, once again attaching its perspective to that of children escaping into the realm of fantasy as a means of avoiding the hardships of their impoverished lives and what it means to be a working stiff (one child in the opening runs away at the prospect of becoming “a mop and broom man”). It’s meant to be diverting but it’s never really that exciting or involving, tapping into a wellspring of awe. There’s a beautifully idyllic island and a volcano, and of course our magic fish, but there aren’t nearly enough genuine magical elements to convey that desired whimsy. The freedom of a life without adults seems less free when there’s less to do. Much of the movie feels closer to The Florida Project where a group of poor kids are playing around junk to keep from being bored. This Neverland universe feels very limited as far as what can be done. They run around, they pretend, there are even some decrepit buildings, but what else? There isn’t really a society here in concert with our lost children and former lost children. It’s a pretty empty island retreat.
Perhaps that was Zeitlin’s goal, to strip away the romanticized notions we attach to forever staying young, chasing the fleeting feeling of the past while ignoring the present and adulthood, but this more critical theme doesn’t come across thoroughly either. There is one interesting aspect of the island’s unexplained magic and that is the older adults are former lost boys and girls who lost faith in Mother, thus activating their advanced aging and expulsion from Peter’s posse. I like the idea that the future villainous pirates of a Neverland are former lost boys; it gives an interesting personal dynamic for Peter. These adults, though, want to go back to being young again and they are convinced that killing Mother will achieve this, and it doesn’t go as planned. The deconstruction of fantasy with real violence doesn’t work because the consequences aren’t at the same level of realism. A child, in an effort to avoid growing old, makes a drastic decision, but the brushed-off aftermath makes the insertion of the harsher violence feel perfunctory. Peter is portrayed as an idealist leader one moment and ignorant and selfish the next, even with Wendy scolding him that there’s nothing wrong with growing up and becoming an adult, despite the mixed message of the former lost boys. The movie concludes with a goofy sing-a-long for magic resolution purposes that is played so earnestly that it makes it hard for me to believe Zeitlin was intending to be too critical of his magical world.
Is Wendy about rejecting adulthood or the unavoidable perils of rejecting adulthood? I cannot say because the themes are so muddled with such a precious lack of significant storytelling content. Once again, a Zeitlin film feels like an improvised series of redundant scenes, where we watch kids play fight, we watch kids yell at one another, we watch kids run, we watch kids swim, all with headache-inducing handheld camerawork, but do we get to know these kids on a deeper level where they feel like people rather than figures? The plot of Wendy, written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is very unclear about the rules of its magical world, which makes for a hard time to understand why anything is really happening. It also makes the movie less fun to experience because we don’t get to play along with the discovery of a fantasy world, its new parameters, and how we can develop and complicate them (not that there’s really much to discover; Neverland gets old quickly). This is definitely a movie that’s meant to convey more in feeling and inference, so the plot beats are very inconsequential outside of a few key movements. I didn’t find myself caring about any of the kids and their general well-being, even after they take it upon themselves to make some rash medical decisions. Wendy is our best realized character as she at least seems conflicted about the appeal and consequences of staying young indefinitely. The others are easily replaceable.
Wendy isn’t a bad movie and it’s clearly a very personally designed project from Zeitlin given the years of preparation. It has consistently gorgeous photography by Sturla Brandth Grovlen, the first film production shot on location on Montserrat island, and the score by Dan Romer (Maniac, Atypical) excels at the big swooning, churning melodies that crescendo into triumphant bliss. But even these positive technical qualities can only distract you momentarily from the missing center of Wendy, the story and characters and themes and discernible messages. I’m not asking for my entertainment to spoon-feed me what to think and feel from my art, but having a consistent message, or even an accessible entry point to decode and debate the art would help, as would engaging characters and a plot that felt more meaningful than just another disposable color to blend into a murky abstract mess of childhood whimsy, magic realism, and coming-of-age themes. A little of Wendy goes a long way, and two hours gets quite tedious. I just cannot foresee people falling under the spell of this movie. I wrote that Beasts had “half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register,” and this much is also true with Wendy. I also wrote that Beasts was “an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing,” and this much is also true with Wendy. Maybe I’m just not the right fit for a Benh Zeitlin film. This is two hours of kids running around on an island without supervision and the occasional Peter Pan element thrown in. Maybe that sounds like a grand retreat as a viewer but it made me happy to be an adult and leave.
Nate’s Grade: C
After months of rapturous praise from Sundance and Cannes, allow me to be the wet blanket of the critical community, because Beasts of the Southern Wild is one big helping of “meh.” I didn’t enjoy this movie at all and its mixture of strange fantasy elements and a hellish childhood reminded me of another misfire, 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives on a spit of land off New Orleans and below the levy. This tucked-away land is nicknamed by its colorful, besotted residents as the Bathtub. Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in large shacks elevated high off the ground. This comes in handy because after a disastrous flood, Hushpuppy and her father have to navigate the waters to find others and scramble for some return to their life and culture. The residents must also make sure to be cautious because the U.S. government, which is evacuating all flood-devastated areas, is looking for survivors to forcibly remove. Wink is sick and has to impart the ways of his family and culture to young Hushpuppy, who sees herself as one piece in a big puzzle.
This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message. I could have sworn that the fantasy elements, namely the giant thundering pack of large boars, were just going to be a visual metaphor for Hushpuppy’s journey. And then they actually show up and every person can see them. So, now what? The boars are one of many ideas that the movie just sort of toys around with before losing interest. This is not a film of magic realism. This is not a film about the escapes from a hard reality. In a way, this movie plays out like if Terrence Malick had made Gummo, and if you know me, you know I loathe both Gummo and Terrence Malick movies. Beasts constantly flirts with pseudo-intellectual pabulum, trying to reach something profound but instead settling for confounding. Hushpuppy’s curlicue unnatural narration talks about being a little piece in a big universe and the interconnectedness of all things, but by film’s end you get no dynamic sense of this. What I got was a little kid’s poor life getting worse, and that’s about it. If the film has anything larger to say about the world, Katrina, human connection, then I’m at a loss as to explain what that may be. Beasts offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register. I never found Hushpuppy an engaging protagonist and felt like her very age and the heavy burdens she is forced to carry were manipulative substitutes for actual characterization. I cannot understand the love here.
The movie is something of a wild stew of Southern folklore and coming-of-age tropes and plenty of indie trappings, like weak political allegory, roaming handheld camerawork, and sacrificing story to the altar of realism. So much of this movie feels like it was made to give a sense of how an overlooked life in poverty is lived. From that standpoint the film does a commendable job of showing everyday life and the struggle to feed and survive. There’s a certain sense of ingenuity at work. But all of these setting details do not take the place of an involving story and characters we should care about. I felt sorry for the various residents of the Bathtub and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because, as mentioned before, they’re bland and simplistically drawn, but also because Beasts doesn’t bother to do anything else other than create its rich, tragic, harsh world. It’s authentic all right, but what does all that authenticity have to add to genuine character work? Artistic authenticity is not always synonymous with telling a good story. The Bathtub feels real, got it. So now what?
Hushpuppy lives in squalor and the movie has a disquieting romanticism of abject poverty. To the residents of the Bathtub, they are living in some forgotten paradise away from the concerns of the mainland. They refuse to leave their homes and their lives, even though there isn’t much of a home to call one’s own. We wade in this horrible existence and are meant to pretend like it’s an idyllic lifestyle, you know, with all the creature comforts of child abuse thrown in for extra measure. While Beasts looks entirely authentic with its impoverished, junkyard-esque production design, the overall mood and atmosphere hardly seems worth celebrating. Now, I’m not saying that characters can’t make the most of whatever life has given them and meet the implacable with fearless optimism. These characters would likely shun our pity; they reject any government assistance after the great flood and just want to sneak back to their simpler lives. This is not an enviable life, and the fact that the movie tries to romanticize it feels deeply irresponsible. At least with a film like Winter’s Bone, where you felt the crushing existence of systemic poverty, the filmmakers didn’t try and put a smile on all the drudgery. In that movie, you felt the trappings of poverty and how it can sink into your soul. On some level perseverance in the face of adversity is noble, but so would escaping poverty. Regardless, this is not worthy of romanticizing or fetishizing.
Little Wallis is certainly getting her fair share of attention for anchoring the film. She’s six years old so it’s hard to assess her full acting potential, but the kid looks to have some fire in her. However, it is not a performance that leaves a lasting impression. I realized that much of her performance was long reaction shots and that ponderous voiceover narration. True, she does get some dramatic sequences and lets loose a few tears, but it feels like the movie didn’t want to push her too far and settled on a barrage of shots of Hushpuppy being stoic. I was more impressed with Henry, he too an acting novice making his debut. His character is more complex than an innocent naïf we have as our protagonist. He’s clearly dying and trying to quickly get his daughter prepared for a life of independence. He’s also quick to anger and you can feel the heavy weight of his life and his fledgling mission. In fact, I think Beasts would have been better if it had been told from the father’s perspective rather than our child trying to understand the great big scary world. There’s certainly a lot more drama and an easier route for sympathy, even if he could be accused of being cruel and neglectful.
I’ll admit that Beasts of the Southern Wild is different, daring, and fitfully imaginative, as well as benefiting from strong production design and special effects work. But “different” and “daring” doesn’t always mean good. I cannot in good faith say I enjoyed this movie, especially with its freeform plot, messages, tones, and occasional garish imagery. The plot seems desperate for some form of greater meaning, defaulting to ponderous poetry rather than supply a workable narrative and characters that are developed. Then there’s the whole romanticizing of systemic poverty that I find off-putting and wrongheaded. This is just a swampy mess of a movie, one that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. It’s admirable from a technical standpoint but as a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in eclectic navel-gazing.
Nate’s Grade: C+