Anyone at all remotely interested in films knows that the Oscars are a bit of a sham, and just to be clear, we’ve known this for a while. By 1942 — when “How Green Was My Valley” beat out “Citizen Kane” and “The Maltese Falcon” for best picture — the trend was set. Each year’s Academy Awards ceremony almost never rewards the year’s truly best film. The winner needs a killer story, an aggressive producer and the eyes of the nation. Veteran filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (with his dastardly cohort Harvey Weinstein) usually carry these factors in spades. So as usually happens, the safest and most predictable film wins. There are no controversies. There are no surprises. But there still remains that vast and almost impenetrable pre-ceremony divide between what will win and what should: baby-faced director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature “Beasts of the Southern Wild” falls in with the latter.
In this film, 5-year-old Hushpuppy lives with her imperfect and alcoholic father Wink in the Bathtub, an impoverished bayou community set squarely in the sights of both a deadly storm and a pack of recently unfrozen prehistoric creatures called Aurochs. But rather than flee their home, Hushpuppy and Wink brave the destruction and lean on the Bathtub’s other survivors to maintain their collectively penniless way of life. This is a defiance that never dies, even as time runs out on Wink’s failing heart. Eventually, it is Hushpuppy alone who must carry the torch of her ravaged and incomplete community, and it is with this imaginative little girl that the greatest triumphs of life and the living of it are revealed.
From a purely logistical standpoint, this is exactly the kind of film that could make a run at the Oscars. After all, it’s about a broken American minority family that, on some level, finds the meaning of happiness. Voters eat this kind of shit up, but only if it’s spoon-fed to them. Thankfully, Zeitlin refuses to do any such thing, much like his apparent mentor Terrence Malick.
Last year, the modern-day auteur dropped a spiritual and philosophical bombshell on our heads: “The Tree of Life” was nothing short of an atomic wasteland of moral quandaries and probing questions — of the “Is there a meaning to life?” variety. But he wrapped this expansive thematic framework onto a loose (more like plotless) narrative that, for all its pretty images, confounded moviegoers much more than it entertained them. That’s not to say it wasn’t a critically crowning achievement: It snagged numerous independent awards, including at Cannes.
“Beasts” has done much of the same thing. Critics across the spectrum have praised Zeitlin’s debut, hailing it as an astounding insight into a little Southern slice of poor but hardly downtrodden Americana. Indie awards shows (like Cannes and Sundance) have agreed. But don’t book it for one of the Academy’s golden statuettes. That’s a different arena entirely.
And while many people have in fact checked out “Beasts” in some form or fashion, you won’t find its buildup buzz roaring like Aurochs in heat. If anything, the noise has been noticeably absent. No one thinks it has a chance to win, and that’s because it doesn’t. “Beasts” is a lost cause for best picture, just like every Malick movie that’s ever been made or ever will be made.
But I want to believe that this film, which is without a doubt the most visionary little flick to come out in 2012, stands some kind of a reasonable chance. Sure, it’s not “The Godfather” or “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Casablanca.” It’s just little Hushpuppy and her father: individuals that, through some kind of humanistic miracle, resist death and decay in two remarkable blows. They live lives of passion and vitality that in the hands of anyone other than Benh Zeitlin would crumple and then combust. Instead, we get a carefully controlled explosion of sights and wonder that you have to think deserves some kind of higher recognition. If the purpose of the Oscars is to award the year’s best film, the award should go to this film. Too bad it won’t.