Annals of the Overrated: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

February 14, 2013

There’s been a lot of Oscar chatter about the fact that “Argo” seems on track to win the best-picture trophy this year – despite the fact that its director, Ben Affleck, was left off the list of best-director nominees.

What seems to have gone undiscussed is the elephant in the room – why Affleck’s nomination went instead to Benh Zeitlin, who directed the wildly overpraised “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Cheap, amateurish and sometimes just plain hard to watch, “Beasts” enjoyed a wave of overwrought critical hosannas, going all the way back to when the film first was shown more than a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival (where it won the always-suspect grand-jury prize, frequently given to an all-but-unwatchable film). It then got a much-vaunted sneak preview at last year’s New Directors/New Films series and, by the time it was released in June, was on track to be one of the best reviewed films of the year.

I didn’t see it until a couple of weeks prior to its release, having heard it buzzed about and hyped as this magical bit of breakthrough movie-making that dealt with race, poverty and Katrina politics, all in one slight film starring a 5-year-old.

And then I actually saw it and thought, well, geez, there’s not much there and I can’t imagine what I would write about it.

Fortunately, its opening came on a week I took as vacation, so I didn’t feel compelled to review it. Indeed, I felt no compulsion to even think about it any further; it neither moved me, nor stuck with me.

Still, given the critical response when the film was released, I assumed it would be a major contender when critics groups began to vote. But while it was competitive in the category for best first film when I voted with the New York Film Critics Circle in early December, it was easily bested by “How to Survive a Plague,” the first documentary to win that award from that group.

And, as the other critics’ groups voted through the month, it never really picked up any momentum. Oh, it won a few – most promising newcomer for Zeitlin from the critics in Chicago; best directorial debut from the National Board of Film Buffs, er, Review. But there was no groundswell for “Beasts.”

Instead, I saw it as one of those films which, released in a June plastered wall-to-wall with super-hero and special-effects movies, looked so different that critics pounced on it as a palate cleanser. But even if it wowed you, it apparently wasn’t a movie that grew in the imagination after you see it, the way a few movies do. Instead, it faded and was replaced with other enthusiasms, as most movies are.

Then, along came the Academy voters, who apparently suffered the same kind of momentary contact high that critics did, and they handed “Beasts” a best-picture nomination, squandering Affleck’s directing nomination on Zeitlin.

When that happened, I popped in my awards-season screener of the film and watched it again, together with a couple members of my family who were curious because of the Oscar nominations.

When it was over, I was still baffled: What was it that these Oscar voters were seeing that so obviously was eluding me?

Instead of a charming or involving piece of Louisiana magical-realism (isn’t that phrase redundant?), it seemed mildly condescending to me: the tale of the plucky, abused and neglected black child who somehow overcomes a physically menacing father to survive the big storm and rise above, even after her father dies. It seemed like a contemporary throwback to the odious notion of the noble savage.

It was not dramatic; it was barely anthropological. And its attempt at the mythic was obvious and heavy-handed, with little Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her hallucinatory visions of buffalo-sized boars with multiple tusks. I get it: They’re the dark forces of an uncaring world, converging on this forgotten little girl to see if she can survive the heaviest stuff the world can throw at her.

Wallis’ performance was honored by a number of well-meaning critics’ groups and given an Oscar nomination that would have been better spent on Marion Cotillard or even Judi Dench. Is it even really acting?

I would argue that it more closely resembles directed behavior, like playtime in kindergarten: “OK, pretend you’re angry. Now roar like a lion.” All acting performances amount to playing pretend – but not all examples of playing pretend can be considered acting performances.

There are a couple misguided Oscar forays like this every year. For 2012, however, this overrated film took up Oscar slots it didn’t deserve – and will be forgotten by this time next year.

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