“When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me, flying around in invisible pieces.” That’s Hushpuppy, a daughter of the Louisiana bayou, speaking in voice-over at the beginning of Benh Zeitlin’s striking, lyrical, maddeningly uneven Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film has been generating buzz ever since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year; now there is talk of Oscar nominations. It’s the kind of movie that has the power to run on its own novelty: I can’t really say that there has ever been a film like it before, though it has invited comparison to Malick’s Days of Heaven (it also variously recalls George Washington, Killer of Sheep, and Where the Wild Things Are). Set within a community of New Orleanians known as The Bathtub, whose denizens live in trailers and houseboats in abject poverty, it re-imagines the trauma of Hurricane Katrina as the stuff of folk legend: Hushpuppy uses roots and herbs to heal her ailing father, communes with the spirit of her mother via an old basketball jersey, and hears stories of monstrous beasts, once frozen in the polar ice caps, now re-animated by global warming.
It’s a unique and winsome concept, and it unfolds atmospherically within a strikingly imagined film-world. Rarely is this kind of magical realism, in which everyday life is infused with the supernatural, attempted for the screen; it has mostly flourished in novels by such authors as Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When it succeeds, particularly in Beasts’ first half, it makes for compelling cinema. But the film loses its sense of control when a hazardous storm forces the film’s characters to venture out of The Bathtub and into more conventional milieux. A sequence set in a shelter for storm victims is particularly weak; the film’s points begin to feel too easily made, and it loses its narrative thread. A late encounter with those arctic beasts, which look like giant boars, also proves anticlimactic (it's never made clear what narrative or stylistic purpose they serve). It becomes clear that while the film has bold ideas, it doesn’t always know what to do with them. I’m not convinced that this is the masterpiece that some have claimed; it’s inspired, but its footing isn’t sure, and by the end it has failed to live up to its own ambitions.