WARNING: Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen Beasts of the Southern Wild you probably should wait to watch the movie before reading this.
As I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, I swelled with pride at the sight of my south Louisiana homeland and its residents portrayed on the silver screen in an accurate manner – perhaps outgunned by Mother Nature and other manmade forces but resilient and awash with joie de vivre to the bitter end.
I also marveled at the realization I had never seen anything like Beasts of the Southern Wild inside a movie theater, or a home theater, for that matter. Not only did it portray bayou people in a responsible fashion, instead of bumbling buffoons with cartoonish accents, but it starred a young black girl as a heroine and focused on the underwritten dynamic of a single black father “raising” his daughter. I used quotation marks around the word raising because at times it appeared Hushpuppy was the one raising her dad.
Eventually on-screen events snapped me out of my proud stupor. Specifically, images of glaciers breaking off into the sea set off alarms in my head. I heard prior to seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild that it had a global warming tie-in but did not know to what extent. Well, it’s hard to miss. The point director Benh Zeitlin tried to get across – global warming is destroying the Bathtub – failed to resonate with me. That’s being too kind. It felt wrong and slanted and hit with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head.
Louisiana’s coast started eroding well before global warming became a political hot potato. Yes, I realize the idea that global warming has been the driving force behind erosion provides the film its zeitgeist appeal but it’s an appeal that is rooted in falsehood. Gradually disappearing barrier islands don’t make for a sexy film, I realize., but the heavy-handed global warming associations served as unwelcome distractions.
Zeitlin and crew got a lot right, though. It should also be noted my expectations for this movie were in the clouds. Therefore, if it reads like I am overly critical of this film it’s because I wanted this movie to be every bit as good as film critics declared it, and then some.
Pieces of it were.
Quvenzhane Wallis (Hushpuppy) was a wunderkind. She sparkled on the screen like a Fourth of July fireworks display over the Mississippi River. It’s hard to imagine a 6-year-old newcomer nailing a more nuanced role. Throughout the movie, Hushpuppy wrestles with the loss of her mother, her father’s alcoholism and abusive ways, her homeland’s eventual destruction, and much more. She is no angel. She burns down her trailer and tells her father she hates him and wishes him dead. Yet, she is easy to root for despite her transgressions. Such is her youthful enthusiasm.
Wallis’ on-screen father Dwight Henry also stood out as a man trying to do right by his daughter, his people, and his way of life while battling severe demons. While Hushpuppy’s innocence and naivete shield her from the true ramifications of the events around her, her father has no such refuge, except for the bottle. The father-daughter interactions ranged from humorous and heartfelt (i.e., “Who’s the man?” scene) to heartbreaking (i.e., his desire to keep her from seeing him suffer toward the end).
The pre-hurricane scene where Bathtub residents sit on their front porches drinking beer, defiant and buzzed, also made an impression. I have encountered this while reporting in south Louisiana. It was a small detail but a rich one, nonetheless. Also: The scenes of desperation and despair in the evacuation shelter reminded me of ones I reported from. Those three or four minutes on-screen related something important. Man’s dignity is at stake here. Not just his home or anything else material that people in the cities where this movie is being shown spend their days trying to attain. The characters here are focused on different pursuits – living off the land, cultivating a sense of community, and preserving a legacy for future generations, etc.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is not an uplifting movie, in spite of what I have heard some say. Death is the characters’ constant companion, amid all of their pursuits. Not only physical death but cultural and communal death too. It’s a heavy film. Even the ending lacks resolution for all the sadness. It’s just an invitation to more sadness in the future.
What this movie has is spirit, kinetic energy, heart, etc. It is beautifully shot and the performances of the two leads are dynamic. However, the global warming message and the racial harmony hit false notes for me. Either Zeitlin didn’t pick up on the racial unease that exists in the southernmost bayous between whites, blacks, and Native Americans or he chose to ignore them. Perhaps tackling race issues in a global warming picture would have been far too ambitious.
I also puzzled over parts of the film’s story which felt jumbled or lacking purpose. The film’s first half resembled a collage more than a plot-driven device, leaving me feeling lost in a world I know. I have read reviews of Beasts of the Southern Wild where reviewers compared this aspect of the film to Tree of Life, a movie I disliked. It’s hard to make abstraction and literalism feel cohesive. I don’t feel like either movie did it particularly well. Two days later, I am unsure whether I would recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild to someone not born in the Bathtub region of south Louisiana. I want to chant “Beast it” along with everyone else lauding the film but I am conflicted.
Addendum: I am seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild this Friday in Portland. Perhaps a second viewing will sit better with me and unlock the film’s greatness. I’ll write about it either way. (Ed. Note: You can read about my second viewing here.)