Six year old Wallis lives in an isolated community, known as "The Bath-tub", the wrong side of a levy wall. After a lecture on global warming from a neighbor (Montana), she begins to fantasize the return of mythical prehistoric beasts known as Aurochs who have been kept frozen but are now set loose by the melting of the polar ice-caps. Her mother having left when she was an infant, Wallis now lives with her alcoholic father (Henry), although the two stay in separated prefabricated homes. In the aftermath of a storm which floods the bayou, the residents are taken against their will to an emergency shelter.
I could probably count on one hand the number of films that have been enhanced by a voice-over but I would require the fingers and toes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to total those that have been adversely affected by the technique. Sometimes it's a necessary evil; the narration in Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" provides us a context without requiring a knowledge of Eighteenth Century European history. Usually though it means one of two things; either the film-maker lacks confidence in his ability to tell a story visually or they want to crudely hammer home a message. In this case it's the latter. Zeitlin has made a fine film but ruins it by having Wallis lecture us in a vocabulary that lacks credibility for any six-year-old, let alone one with no formal education. Using a child to provide narration is like having a child carry a placard at a protest rally, it's the cheapest of tricks, designed to make the message seem somehow more pure because it's coming from such an innocent source. Thanks to this, "Beasts" is to Hurricane Katrina what "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" was to 9/11, a sick and cheap exploitation of suffering, tragedy chic, a marionette show for white middle-class liberals.
"The Bath-tub" is a fascinating world, but far from praise-worthy. Zeitlin wants us to view it as a utopia where people live in harmony away from the modern world. He tells us how every other day is a holiday for these people and mocks the sight of power stations in the distance. Personally I'm much happier living in a world of electricity but if others want to live differently shouldn't they be entitled to? Yes of course, but not when children are involved as is the case here. The way these people treat their children is unacceptable by the standards of any reasonable thinking person and in reality the FBI would have raided "The Bath-tub" long ago. Without the voice-over which promotes this lifestyle, the film would have been a fascinating look at an alternative lifestyle, allowing the viewer to decide where they stand on the issue. As someone who believes every child should be entitled to a formal education and modern medicine, this film made my blood boil.
Technically it's an impressive piece of work, shot on 16mm which reminds us that even cheaper film formats look far superior to their digital successors. The amateur cast are roundly superb, especially Wallis. All too often child actors come off like tiny adults but Wallis gives a true performance of credible child acting. It's criminal that the voice-over will detract from how visually expressive her face is, her eyes telling us far more than any writer's words ever could.
Bring some ear-plugs and you'll be blown away by "Beasts", but open your ears and you'll be subjected to an anti-government and anti-science diatribe that plays like a cross between a Tea-Party recruitment campaign and a Greenpeace commercial.