Broken social and economic systems, and the broken lives and homes they leave in their wake, have been a big theme at Sundance this year. Across documentaries and fiction features, broached directly and indirectly, it seems the new American dream is a longing for the old normal; accumulation or advancement is the stuff of fantasy when it's a backbreaking struggle just to maintain the status quo.
On Tuesday I caught up with two of the festival's most talked-about films. Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild -- which sold to Fox Searchlight after what was reportedly a heated, weekend-long bidding war -- and Craig Zobel's Compliance are both movies about food chains, and the urgency of holding on for dear life to whatever it is you've got. But while Compliance coldly assesses how easily humanity, compassion and community can slip away when everyone's trying to hold on to what's theirs, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the inverse: It's a movie about a community for whom holding on to what's theirs is a communal effort, encompassing humans and animals, physical and metaphysical.
Compliance is based on the real-life crimes of a prank caller who targeted fast food restaurants and grocery stores in poor, rural areas. Fronting as a police officer, he would convince a managerial employee to strip-search a female subordinate, sometimes egging them on over the phone until the situation escalated to rape.
The "Mount Washington, Kentucky incident" described on Wikipedia is pretty close to the plot of Zobel's film: Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of an Ohio fast food chicken franchise, is called to the phone and told by the male voice on the other end (Pat Healy) that the police are investigating her pretty blonde counter girl Becky (Dreama Walker) for stealing from a customer's purse. The supposed cop, who insists that he's already looped in Sandra's corporate boss, insists that the manager strip-search Becky. When Sandra has to go back to relieve the restaurant's overburdened employees up front, the voice tells her she needs to find a male to supervise the still-naked alleged thief until a deputy can pick her up and take her to the station. So Sandra calls in her blue-collar boyfriend to take over. Under his watch, Becky's "interrogation" escalates to sexual assault.
For much of its running time, Compliance is highly manipulative. Zobel waits a long while before revealing who the caller truly is and where he's calling from; once he does, as the characters continue to follow virtually every command with little protest, their gullibility clashed with the caller's gleeful smirking is scream-at-the-screen infuriating. And then, just when you're convinced that there is no humanity at the ChickWich, when it seems that horror movie logic has taken over the movie's real world like a spell, suddenly that spell is broken. The best part of the movie is its final reel, which takes place after the crime, as outsiders (real police, journalists) attempt to figure out how this could have happened. In her own interrogation scene, Dowd is able to make the banality of the obvious answers -- i.e., "I just did what I was told to do" -- thrillingly creepy.
Compliance's genre thrills feel richer when you consider that the context for how obedience could trump basic morality is embedded in every moment of the film. It's not an accident that the prank caller preys on a fast food joint, the province of minimum wage workers supervised by dues-paying lifers. Not only are even those at the top of this food chain unlikely to be well-educated, but everyone from the top to the bottom likely needs their job too much to risk questioning authority.
If the workers are united by their paycheck dependence, Zobel creates major rifts between characters based on generation. It's the restaurant's oldest employee who finally calls foul, while Becky, the youngest, is incredibly passive about her victimization. Early in the film, before the prank begins, she casually mentions that a boyfriend is pressuring her to text him topless pics; after the ordeal, when asked why she didn't simply refuse to take off her clothes, she says she "just knew it was going to happen." She's completely resigned to being exploited, while her middle-aged middle manager unthinkingly takes and carries out orders to exploit her employee.
As exploitative as it may be of an audience's goodwill, Compliance is not an exploitation film, exactly; it's more of a procedural, an anatomy of how systemic everyday exploitation is the perfect breeding ground for extraordinary exploitation.
How's this for a segue: "Extraordinary" and "exploitative" are both adjectives I've heard to describe Beasts of the Southern Wild; while I both admire it and have problems with it, both e-words are a bit extreme.
A kind of feature-length spinoff of Zeitlin's award-winning short film Glory at Sea, Beasts is a wildly colorful fairy tale allegory about a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (played by truly extraordinary first-time actress Quvenzhané Wallis). Hushpuppy lives in/on The Bathtub, a kind of magical ghetto island of outcasts floating off the southern coast of Louisiana. In The Bathtub's makeshift school house, Hushpuppy learns that because the polar ice caps are melting, the community is expecting a storm that's likely to drown them out, as well as bring on the arrival of ice age beasts called aurochs.
Meanwhile, Hushpuppy's father, Wink (Dwight Henry), tries to prepare his kid to take care of herself in the event of his death. When the storm hits, Wink, Hushpuppy and a few friends survive, and gather in The Bathtub's most solid structure -- its bar. But with most of the city underwater, they can't survive for long, and they're eventually dragged to a displacement camp on the mainland, where Wink learns he's dying.
With its remarkably imaginative (if not decidedly imaginary) creatures, its often cloying naive-sage voice-over and aestheticization of gluttonous decay, the approach is sort of Where the Wild Things Are co-directed by Terrence Malick and Harmony Korine, and the product is just as disorienting as that sounds. The most unique invention of the film is The Bathtub's ecosystem, a flat food chain. "Every animal is made out of meat," one adult tells Hushpuppy. "It's part of the buffet of the universe." The biological certainty that if you're living now, you'll eventually be another creature's dinner, impels a raucous embrace of carnality, and a philosophical acceptance of death. When the bulk of the community drowns, those left over have a "funeral Bathtub style -- no crying allowed." But plenty of drinking and eating.
Beasts stumbles when it leaves the murky miasma of The Bathtub, when it makes its allegory to post-Katrina New Orleans explicit by sending the survivors of the drowned community to a mainland displacement camp, where their muddy rags are exchanged for comparatively pristine hand-me-downs, and buses await to relocate them to Des Moines. Tethering this otherwise abstract film to Hurricane Katrina puts it in political territory, but the only tangible ideology here is "Live and let live." The best analogue for its historically minded magical realism might be Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, except where that Thai film's key contradiction is its dreamlike Buddhism and its piercing awareness of the mundane horrors of war, Zeitlin's film is both pagan and twee.
Where so many films here at Sundance posit life on Earth circa now as a battle to stave off decline, Beasts both embraces that battle and infantilizes it. That's not necessarily a pejorative -- when Hushpuppy says something like, "The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right, and if you can fix the broken piece, everything can go right back," her childlike understanding of returning to an old normal could double for the allegedly adult worldviews of what seems like half the films here. The film is never less than a wonder to look at; it's also rarely anything more.