When the Levee Breaks – ★★
Not since Oliver! have we seen such a rose tinted view of poverty and the struggles of the dispossessed. Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film is a hodge-podge of scenes and half finished ideas depending on saccharine emotions to tug at your heart strings.
Hushpuppy is an only child living with her ill father Wink in the Bathtub, a community on a Louisiana bayou made up of waifs, drifters and raconteurs. They eke out an existence living on chicken and shellfish. Hushpuppy’s mother is nowhere to be seen and when her father wonders off for days at a time she must fend for herself by any means possible. Melting ice caps and rising waters threaten to drown the Bathtub community and they must decide whether to hold up or flee to safety. To add to the drama mythical creatures called Aurochs (think scary versions of Pumbaa from The Lion King) are thundering towards Hushpuppy.
The start is pretty disjointed as it tries to pin down the notion of the Bathtub and the community it contains. One segment in particular is a montage of a party where races are held, food and drink are consumed and children run around with lit fireworks. It looks like an add for O2, all it needs is a Florence and the Machine track and the picture would be complete. It does have its own brand of inspiring music created by Dan Romer and director Benh Zeitlin which is so out of place with the story on screen it jars immensely. You can’t sugarcoat the fact that a population are living in tremendous poverty by slapping on some exhilarating music.
| o | – Papa don’t preach
The piece is obviously a musing on a post Hurricane Katrina America and touches on the theory that levees were purposely dynamited (or not as the case may be) to divert flood waters from wealthier areas. It has many ethereal, dreamlike sequences which try and conjure up the mysterious ways of the south, leading to some of the more random unnecessary moments of the film. It doesn’t really have a clue what it is; gritty social commentary, oblique art house, father-daughter relationship, environmental warning or a fantasy film. So instead of sticking to one it takes smatterings of each and jumbles them together.
Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy, the “Scout-esque” tomboy who has to learn to fend for herself as her Dad battles an illness other than alcoholism. She performs the role adequately, but with the tone of the film it is hard to believe the character or emphasize with her and most of her acting resorts to shouting and huffing at the camera. A major stumbling block is the film revolves around her so if you are unable to get on board it becomes quite tiresome.
Brimming with stereotypes about the south you can’t help but feel that New Yorker Benh Zeitlin has missed a great opportunity to present a real examination of America’s forgotten people instead of an indie art house box ticking picture. There is a scene towards the end where all that is needed to fix a broken daddy daughter relationship is some good old fried chicken. Please. With some nice cinematography courtesy of Ben Richardson, Beasts ultimately falls short and disappears up it’s own positivity. A sure fire Oscar contender.
USA / Directed By: Benh Zeitlin / Written By: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin / Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly / 93min / Fantasy, Drama / Release: 19 October 2012 (UK/Ireland), 27 June 2012 (US), 13 July 2012 (Canada)