Sometimes you’re five years old and dealing with the biggest, scariest shit there is.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a wonderful film. Easily one of the best of 2012. It’s sad and earthy and beautiful and strange but so full of life that it can change yours. I don’t doubt that there are people who are going to see Beasts and come away profoundly affected. It’s going to be a hard movie to write about. So much of what makes it special is innate and intangible, part of the magic of being a movie at all. Communicating it in terms of intelligible aspects like performance or narrative is going to fall short of the mark. I’m really excited to see what Benh Zeitlin does next. Beasts is such an original and visionary piece that it becomes exciting both for its own sake and as a fairly astonishing debut. Heaping superlatives on it isn’t really my style, but if you can get into that imagine every one of them and upend them on this movie like a bucket of crabs and shrimp.
Then feel them in your hands before you eat them. Crack the shells yourself. Enjoy every second. That’s Beasts of the Southern Wild.
I am, as always, a sucker for father-daughter stories.
Once there was a Hushpuppy who lived with her daddy in a bathtub. The Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, powerhouse in a five year old’s body) is a little girl of strong character, powerful imagination, and incredible self-reliance. She lives in the Bathtub, a section of wetland near the Levee in Louisana, in total squalor with her alcoholic daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry). The Bathtub is practically post-apocalyptic. They live in squalor, yes, and there’s a certain trashy poverty that invites scrutiny and perhaps even judgment, but Hushpuppy and the people here are here because this is their home and they are as fiercely protective of it as they are independent from an outside world with which they have no understanding. There’s a scrappiness to them that comes with roughing it out in the margins, and that makes Beasts a story of people in the margins and of what kinds of weird and original beauty can be found there. The movie is not judgmental toward its characters but nor does it shy away from the realities. The Bathtub is a dangerous place and they all know it. They live with the storms, the occasional apocalypses with horrific consequences that people like you and me can scarcely imagine. They do it all with a zest for life that is implacable and irresistible, a quality that Hushpuppy basically embodies and is the key to drawing you into her story.
In many ways, Beasts is simultaneously the closest thing to a live action Miyazaki film yet made and it’s total antithesis. In its love for nature, Beasts shows us a humanity that is bordering on feral, but in a non-predatory way. The people of the Bathtub are earthy in the most basic sense. They live in what most people would think of as filth, so close to the animals and plants they depend on that they are part of the same worn but functional fabric that is representative of the life they lead. Miyazaki’s whole thing is also celebration of nature and a call for humans to get back closer to it, but it also presents nature with mysticism and purity that is idealistic and, sorry to say, false. It’s a concept of nature that is much warmer and fuzzier than that in Beasts and while it has its place, it’s also what so dramatically separates the two approaches to the same idea. Humans are part of nature, we’re just meat and we’re as gross as worms and as magical as aurochs. That’s the approach of Beasts, which gets downright visceral in its treatment of animals, death, and natural disaster.
Somehow, through all this grit and grime, nature stays beautiful.
There’s a pleasing sense of utility in the methods that the Bathtub folks use to survive.
The people of the Bathtub seem like poor people anywhere until you see how they rub up against the equalizing forces of our world. When disaster relief people “rescue” them from their flooded territory, it’s almost a tragedy. One of the saddest images is of Hushpuppy listlessly standing there with her hair combed back and wearing what is best described as a doll’s dress. This is such a corruption of the plucky little person we’ve been watching that we actually want her to return to her squalid life. There’s a deep human yearning for nature, something that is reflected in “back to nature” stories, including post-apocalyptic ones, and is part of what we find so satisfying about them. Though they are poor and possibly afflicted in the same ways poor people tend to be everywhere, the people of the Bathtub seem to live with nature in a way that rejects doll’s dresses as firmly as hospitals, where Hushpuppy describes as places where they plug people into the wall when they get too old and sick. That idea, of being plugged into the wall, dashes everything you know and rely on in modern medicine and makes it ugly somehow. Frightening.
That’s the power of this movie. You’re not going to come away from it rejecting modern living, and you shouldn’t, but you will see a perspective wholly different and capable of shifting yours for a couple of hours, maybe widening it forever, and that’s exactly right. It isn’t a matter of living in dangerous conditions or subsisting with only the scraps of modern civilization, patching and recycling where needed. It’s a matter of respecting the universe, your place in it, and the place of nature. There’s a not too subtle potential message of environmentalism in the movie, delivered mostly through apocalyptic images of the aurochs destroying things as they march across the Earth, freed from imprisonment by the melting of the ice caps… something for which we are definitely responsible.
Even saying that, though, I’m not sure the movie wants to hold us accountable. It’s more like devastation is an inevitable part of nature, whether in terms of our homes and possessions or in terms of our loved ones: everything passes away. There’s a cycle to things, and that’s more the point than laying any kind of blame. I think others might see this movie, though, and come away with a sense of condemnation toward our way of life. I can see that, but I don’t agree that it’s what Beasts is trying to say to us.
The concept of adversity is a potent theme of the movie.
The Bathtub is a very specific place but the conflicts are universal. Hushpuppy isn’t exactly coming of age, she’s fucking five, but she is dealing with adversity in ways both big and small. Through it all, she inspires with her unique perspective and immense courage. She’s destined to go down as one of the great all-time child characters. If I can return to my comparison with Hayao Miyazaki’s stuff, it’s actually the character of Hushpuppy that demands it. She’s so much of a Miyazaki character and I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m reducing her in saying that because it reflects positively on both sides. You could do a fucksight worse than being the living embodiment of that tradition.
Wink, on the other hand, is familiar in a less nice way. Wink’s self-absorption and alcoholism are not criticized by the movie, but he does pay for those aspects of himself. The unsaid explanation for his behavior is the passing or leaving of his wife, Hushpuppy’s mother. It’s easy to connect the dots on why Wink is so sad and destructive, and there’s still more than a glimmer of an energetic, kindly, and wholly uncondescending father figure in there. This nicely sidesteps the potential discomfort the audience might have with this guy who it is so easy to remember as someone who should probably not be responsible for a child.
It’s hard to not think that way in general, actually, about so much of this movie. It basically challenges you not to judge, not to do White Man’s Burden every five minutes in your head as you try to cope with the harsh life in the Bathtub. It helps to understand that it’s by choice and to see, through Hushpuppy, the grace in it.
Savory or not, the Bathtub folk have an admirable resilience and general love for life.
There’s an extent to which I could have left this review at “I loved this, please watch” and called it a day. That’s frustrating for me because I want to be able to say more of note about exactly this kind of movie, the kind that’s so fucking hard to be intelligible about. It’s such an emotional experience that the slope inclines toward describing my personal experience, subjective as all hell and of interest to basically me only. At least that’s the only safe thing to presume about that. I know that I’ll finish this review and think back on all the stuff I should have said about the movie in the next couple of days. That always happens with the movies I really love, and it’s not a bad problem to have since those things tend to come up in discussions between friends anyhow.
For now, let me admit to a bit of bias. I am a sucker for movies about fathers and daughters, much as I’m a sucker for movies about brothers. I will tend to take a good movie with a fresh and interesting take on those relationships and think it great. I’ll take a great movie and think it masterful. That’s sort of how the bias works. In writing reviews anyway, I hope that the stuff I’m saying, the descriptions and references and so on, will sort of transcend my bias and be admissible for people who are curious about this movie and why I think it’s a gooder. So here I go using having a hard time writing about an emotional, poetic movie as an excuse to talk about my critical process. Yeesh.
Beasts of the Southern Wild has an amazing score by the way.
Above all else, Beasts is life-affirming without mysticism beyond the mundane miracles of dirt between our toes, saltwater to float on, and battered gator nuggets. All the harsher realities of loss, pain, and death have their place, but so do the set lips and steely eyes of a five year old girl who lived with her daddy in a bathtub.