MIFF ’12—’Moonrise Kingdom’ and ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

This review was originally published on the Meanjin blog on August 21 2012

When you’re trying to navigate through the vast array of choice that a film festival program like MIFF’s offers, it’s highly forgivable to disregard those films you can be reasonably sure will have a commercial cinema release later in the year. There’s nothing so of-the-moment about Moonrise Kingdom, say, or Amour, that won’t wait a few months. But in making such mercenary decisions it’s too easy to forget about the specific and pleasurable forms of film spectatorship that MIFF offers us. We don’t just go to the festival to see new or obscure films, we go join a dedicated and enthusiastic filmgoing clan.

This year, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom was my chief concession to popular cinema. An Anderson film is unlikely to be hard to track down, but even mild fans of Anderson’s stuff are likely to be confused as to whether they’re currently living amidst the backlash-to-the-backlash to his oeuvre, or the backlash-to-the-backlash-to-the-backlash, and so it was sort of a relief to sit down in a theatre where I could presume that people would be likely to enjoy it, or at least be sufficiently respectful.

And it was, indeed, extremely enjoyable—beyond which I don’t have a whole lot to say. It’s his most immediately satisfying film since The Royal Tenenbaums (excepting his animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox ). Anderson, it turns out, has been on a pretty consistent career path. After he came out of the gate so strong with Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and Tenenbaums, and with such an identifiable formal and emotional sensibility, I think people tended to take The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited as a come-down—it suddenly became clear that Wes Anderson was never going to make a film that wasn’t Wes Anderson-y, and there weren’t going to be any surprises, or maybe any masterpieces (hence the backlashes). Moonrise, his seventh feature, feels like the point where he digs in and shows us that he can make a virtue out of his intransigence—that, in short, the Anderson aesthetic has legs, and will continue to afford us a stable set of formal and emotional pleasures for as long as he continues to make films.

Another of my concessions to popular cinema was Behn Zeitlin’s first feature Beasts of the Southern Wild. There are certains film that, even if they receive a big commercial release (as Wild seems likely to), feel like they belong in a festival environment—not least because that is the environment that will be most sensitive and gentle to them. We go to see films at MIFF for the pleasure of cinema per se, not just to get our money’s worth, or feel economically validated. Thus roughness in form, or ambition that outstrips means, is more likely to be forgiven, or even lauded.

Wild from the start quickly establishes itself as a film of unique and heady charm—and then proceeds to abuse that charm and whittle it to the ground over the course of its running time. The film is a magic-realist sort of fable, following a little girl, Hushpuppy, and her volatile, drunken father, who live a maverick, pastoral existence in a swampy, poverty-stricken community—’the Bathtub’— in the Louisiana bayous.

Filmed largely with a cast of locals, Wild has, for a while, the headlong enthusiasm and passion proper in a good first film—aided by a propulsive score, and a relentlessly sincere emotional affect. But the film gets bogged down in some inadvisable narrative choices. Zeitlin has the ingredients, and maybe the talent, for a meandering Terrence Malick-esque depiction of the lives of the Bathtub’s residents, but he insists on throwing in great handfuls of drama— Hushpuppy’s dad is dying; the Bathtub floods; then unfloods; a levee is blown up; the residents are forcefully evacuated; the residents escape; Hushpuppy goes on a quest to find her lost mother; etcetera. It’s exhausting just to list it, let alone see it performed.

The amateur cast is both a virtue and a flaw. Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, is an amazingly natural and charismatic performer, and Dwight Henry, who plays her father, is magnetic enough when his ire is up. But they’re saddled with such an ambitious narrative and unwieldy emotional turns that even professionals would have difficulty navigating it. One starts to feel that one can see the seams where Zeitlin has had to carve into his footage in order to produce any kind of coherent scene—and usually only semi-coherent at that. And so the film can only progress in fits and starts, which Zeitlin tries to disguise with that pounding soundtrack, to ever diminishing returns.

But Wild belongs at MIFF, or any film festival, as all promising first films do. A festival is where its commercial and critical life begins (it has already won the Caméra d’Or award at Cannes, and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance), and where its optimal audience will find it.

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