Beasts of the Southern Wild

The winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut Beasts of the Southern Wild is a deeply eccentric, strikingly immediate story of life and loss in the flooded wastelands of post-Katrina New Orleans. Adapted by Zeitlin’s artistic collective Court 13 from a one-act play by co-writer Lucy Alibar, played by an amateur cast (who also built the sets) and shot on grainy, hand-held 16mm film, Beasts has a charmingly home-made, half-baked aesthetic that, unfortunately, also carries over into the ill-considered narrative.

Hushpuppy, an intrepid six-year-old girl played with extraordinary courage and tenacity by Quvenzhané Wallis, lives with her alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in “The Bathtub,” a flooded Delta community at the edge of civilisation. Hushpuppy is the film’s heroine, a cross between a mini-Mad Max and the biblical Eve, whose whispered voice-over fills us in on her shattered family life, their hardscrabble existence and her sustained belief in magic, despite her father’s tough-love teachings about survival. When Wink contracts a mysterious illness that turns his veins black under his skin, nature itself seems to fall out of synchronicity. A great flood arrives, sinking The Bathtub, the tumbling clouds cause the temperature to rise and, somewhere far distant, the ice-caps melt unleashing a herd of prehistoric pig-like creatures called Aurochs. As the waters rise, and her father slowly succumbs, Hushpuppy goes in search of her long-lost mother and a new home.

But there’s comes a point, about half way through, when it becomes clear that the inhabitants of The Bathtub aren’t the straggled survivors of some apocalyptic disaster, living in a post-industrial Eden of their own assembly, but rather a band of people who choose to live apart from the rest of the world. While the “beasts” commitment to their home and community is touching, and touchingly played, the subsequent story is constructed around their naïve determination to live as Rousseau’s ‘noble savages’, eschewing the medical and social assistance they so desperately need and actively asking the audience to root against the faceless people that offer help. Over time, a desperate cuteness soaks into the film as Zeitlin strains to avoid even the most obvious social comment while having his characters run around in rags in a devastated world where alcohol is the only currency.

Zeitlin does get an extraordinarily self-assured performance from young Wallis (expect her to be nominated for an Academy Award in January) but his Malick-like evocation of natural poetry and magic realism don’t sit comfortably with the realistic depiction of grinding poverty and blackout-chasing alcoholism. Characters that we have come to care for, Hushpuppy in particular, are abandoned as the story sidelines into condescending clichés about ragged people struggling against 'the man' for the right to return to their home. The photography is sensitive and immersive, the soaring score is bouncing and playful but no amount of atmospherics and lighting can fill the gaping hole where a fully-formed story should be. By the time that the Pied Piper Hushpuppy leads a ragged parade of her friends and neighbours holding sparkling fireworks, the film has become little more than a sustained round of applause for its own loose, improvised novelty.

What Richard Did

Having explored the margins of Irish society in his first two films, Adam & Paul and Garage, director Lenny Abrahamson moves towards the centre of things with his new film What Richard Did, set in the leafy suburbs of South Dublin, and finds it can be just as lonely and rotten a place. Sensitively photographed and superbly acted by a talented young ensemble, the film is a major step forward for Abrahamson; a riveting, daringly ambiguous drama that defines a generation.

Loosely adapted by writer Malcolm Campbell from Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day in Blackrock, itself inspired by a notorious real-life violent crime, Abrahamson opens the story with a languid sequence at a summer house party in a holiday villa in Wicklow that carefully establishes the tone. Richard (Jack Reynor) has borrowed his doting parent’s (Lars Mikkelsen and Lorraine Pilkington) place for the weekend to celebrate the end of exams and the university fun to come. 

A private-school student and captain of the rugby team, Richard is a leader among his peers, who look to him to guide them through their tricky teenage years. Among the kids hanging out on the beach is Lara (Roisin Murphy), who is in a relationship with Conor (Sam Keeley). As the summer continues, Richard sets his sights on Lara and the two start dating. But the heart-broken Conor keeps hanging around, making the previously confident and carefree Richard uncomfortable and insecure.

Jealousy, alcohol and bravado combine for a momentary brain-freeze. At a drunken house party deep in the suburbs, Richard becomes involved in an altercation with Conor. Badly hurt, the young man staggers away as Richard jumps into a taxi and goes home. The next morning, the radio news tells us that Conor has died. The fallout drops slowly, settling like a layer of radioactive dust across Richard’s life and the lives of those closest to him.

Unlike Abrahamson’s previous two films, Richard isn’t so much a victim of an uncaring society as its over-confident scion. He’s brilliantly played by newcomer Reynor, who combines an easy, swaggering affability with a brittle fragility, sometimes in the same scene. The ensemble cast are strong, with Murphy and Keeley distinguishing themselves in delicately drawn roles that, like the titular protagonist, skip lightly between obnoxiousness and overwhelming compassion: just like real teenagers. As the story inches towards its resolution and Richard grapples with his guilty conscience, Abrahamson deliberately avoids passing judgement on his characters, providing just enough information and the storytelling space for audiences to draw their own conclusions. The best Irish drama of the year, this hugely impressive and complex film is a must see.