The Movie Club

Why Is Everyone Talking About Race in Django Unchained and Not in Beasts of the Southern Wild?
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 10 2013 12:08 PM

The Movie Club

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I had enormous problems with Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables.
A tolerable Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables.

Universal Pictures.

Dear Dana, Wesley and Keith,

Keith, you’re so right about the way Oscar talk sideswipes actual movie talk. The Oscars are all about predicting, prognosticating, pontificating, mixing and matching—almost everything but actual watching. I’m glad we have this chance to hash out the ifs, ands, buts, and WTFs of the nominations, but I’m also glad we have one last round of Movie Club tomorrow, where we can get back to caring about movies for their own sake. (By the way, did anyone get the rush from David Koepp’s Premium Rush that I did?)

Like you, Dana, I’m surprised and more than a little disappointed that there’s no Best Director nomination for Kathryn Bigelow. But then, that problem is tied to the expansion of the Best Picture category and the fact that the Best Director category is still kickin’ it old school, with five slots, which is the right number for every category, if you ask me. So this year, apparently, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Argo, and Django Unchained all directed themselves and somehow turned out awesome enough to get Best Picture nominations. Remarkable!

But uh-oh. I may be the only person here who has enormous problems with Beasts of the Southern Wild in general and with Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance in particular. Writing about child actors can be enormously difficult; they’re just little kids, for Pete’s sake. If they’re great, we can say they’re naturals—that’s easy. But if they’re bad, we don’t (and shouldn’t) automatically lay the blame on them—ostensibly, it’s the director’s job to guide them.

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But even making allowances for the fact that this is Benh Zeitlin’s first picture, the filmmaking in Beasts of the Southern Wild strikes me as ineptitude masquerading as inventiveness. And while everyone seems to have lots to say about the racial politics of Django Unchained, it’s Beasts of the Southern Wild that makes me really uncomfortable. To me, the picture reads like a postgraduate thesis about post-Katrina poverty, using magic realism as the gimmick to get people to care. God, I know how uncharitable that sounds. But in this case, I just can’t bring myself to hand out bonus points for good intentions. I do think Wallis is adorable, and the fact that she’s saddled with aggressively overwritten voiceover narration isn’t her fault. But if it’s our job to look at child performances as critically as any other—even if we are, by necessity, a bit kinder in writing about them—I just can’t stand by, beaming, when misguided performances like this one get recognized.

I’m pleased, at least, that two of the most gorgeous-looking films of the year, Django Unchained and Skyfall, were recognized for cinematography. And like you, Keith, I actually liked Affleck’s Argo performance—there’s an anxious gravity about it that I responded to—though I’m not bummed out that he didn’t get nominated. And of all the performers in Les Miserables—a movie that made me très miserable—I can kind of live with Anne Hathaway, and am thus OK with her nomination for Least Visible Pores in a Motion Picture. And yet … I recall her slight wardrobe malfunction at the New York Les Mis premiere, and while I hate that young actresses can’t even wriggle out of a limo without having to worry about photographers’ trying to shoot up their skirts, I’d still much rather see Hathaway’s man in the boat than her uvula.

Stephanie

Stephanie Zacharek is chief film critic at the Village Voice.

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