The one film that just about everybody loved at Sundance this year was Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut from director Benh Zeitlin. It won the U.S. Dramatic Prize, received rapturous reviews, and consequently came rumbling down the Utah mountainside as The One Art-House Movie You Need To See This Year.
I like Beasts. I've seen the film twice, and both times I've been impressed by the boldness of its ambitions and the depth of its emotional pull. With an air of magic realism to it, the film stars first-timer Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, a little girl living in an unspecified section of bayou that's been cut off from civilization by a levee, leaving her and the other residents of what's known as "The Bathtub"—including her gruff, ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry)—fighting to survive in dilapidated, makeshift homes.
So Beasts is a model independent film. Unfortunately, it's also a model of the worst cliches of contemporary art-house cinema. Here are the five big ones:
1. It Fetishizes "Authenticity."
One reason audiences go to art-house fare is the belief that it will be more authentic or emotionally genuine than big, impersonal studio movies are. So people lap up stories about how Zeitlin and his cast and crew essentially lived in the handmade world of their fictional Bathtub while making the movie. This is meant to suggest just how invested they were in the movie and how "real" it all is, as if building the sets by hand gives Zeitlin some superior grasp of reality. How does this differ from Tyra Banks walking around in a fat suit to "understand" what it's like to be obese? Because Hollywood movies have such huge budgets, we over-reward low-budget labors of love for the "labor" part. But Meek's Cutoff was a good movie because it's a good movie—not because it sounds like it was bit of a nightmare to make. Knowing that the filmmaker personally pounded nails into wood doesn't tell us a thing about how he did at making a movie.
2. It Tries Way Too Hard to Be Gritty.
Beasts' beautiful cinematography—which won a prize at Sundance for director of photography Ben Richardson—amplifies the film's mythical qualities. But it indulges the stale art-house moves of shaky handheld and other self-conscious camera tricks. Contrary to popular opinion, having the occasional out-of-focus shot doesn't automatically suggest "realness." It's analogous to indie bands who disdain studio polish and think that anything that doesn't sound like crap doesn't come from the heart. Art-house filmmakers aren't necessarily shooting handheld because they're too poor and pure to afford better equipment. They just like making shaky pictures.
3. It Treats Poverty as Something Noble.
There have been eyebrows raised about the fact that Hushpuppy and Wink are black, while Zeitlin is white. (The New Yorker's Richard Brody criticized the film, saying that its "love for the characters veers into familiar conventions of magical, mythical blackness.") My bigger problem comes from the fact that Zeitlin treats all his Bathtub characters, whether they're white or black, with the same faintly patronizing affection. The inhabitants of this forgotten community may be poor, but fear not: They're a lively, rambunctious group, high-spirited and blandly lovable. Like Winter's Bone, Beasts wins admirers by not being a thumbsucker about rich white people who have daddy issues. It wants you to know it cares about "real" people and their real problems, which very easily runs the risk of translating into a condescending variation on aren't-the-poor-cool?" fascination.
4. It Confuses Simple Characters for Memorable Ones.
For as much praise as Wallis has received as Hushpuppy—she was only five when she auditioned—her performance is built around natural cuteness and spunk. She's undeniably captivating—you don't feel like she's acting—but the filmmakers never really give her a character to play. She's an adorable innocent, whose banal voiceover musings like "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right" are treated as cockeyed wisdom. Reviews have compared it to Terrence Malick's use of a similar device, but I couldn't help but think of Forrest Gump, another naif who hasn't been corrupted by the mean ol' world. Hushpuppy isn't someone we're supposed to look up to—she's a nonthreatening innocent who can teach enlightened liberals important life lessons. Plus, it's a can't-miss critic-proofing move: How can you not absolutely love a movie with a girl this sweet? What are you, a terrible person?
5. It Touches on Real-Life Events Without Saying Anything About Them.
Zeitlin has lived in New Orleans for a few years now, and he sounds genuinely touched by what he saw after Hurricane Katrina. "It seemed just like Biblical apocalypse," he told Film Comment, "and whether or not that was every individual experience, it was important to me to kind of elevate the story ... to the level of a myth or a folktale. Look, the politics of any event is always incredibly divisive: ‘It was all Bush's fault.' Or: ‘It was the local government.' Black people. White people. None of which actually gets at the real tragedy or the real emotion of the event."
This is fine in principle. Zeitlin didn't have to make some unsparingly bleak documentary. But the movie's pixie-dust tone anesthetizes the real tragedy and real loss of life that occurred after the hurricane struck, putting in its place a nondescript fable about a father and daughter and some wild, mythical beasts roaming the countryside. Beasts tries to have it both ways: The setting evokes emotional memories of post-Katrina Louisiana, while the story avoids saying anything meaningful (or controversial) about class or race or any of the other issues that Katrina stirred up. In this way, Beasts might be the perfect mainstream art-house movie: It acknowledges that things are grave and serious, but makes sure you still get your happy ending. And as an added bonus, you can look down your nose at the people who went to see The Amazing Spider-Man instead.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.