Returning To The Bathtub: How My Opinion On Beasts Of The Southern Wild Changed

Beasts now showing at Cinema 21 in Portland

WARNING: Spoilers below. You should see the movie before reading unless, that is, you love my writing so much you can’t help yourself. If that’s the case then feel free to spoil your dinner. ;)

Let me just get this out of the way: I still don’t follow the auruchs, the icebergs collapsing, or any of the fantasia elements that happen in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know they offer a parallel to what’s happening in the Bathtub and in the life of young Hushpuppy. My friend Rob did a great job explaining these parallels in the comments section after my first post about the movie, and I encourage you to read his thoughts.

On my second viewing of Beasts of the Southern Wild, much like my first, I found myself largely uninterested in the deeper meanings of the mythical elements at play. This time though they didn’t dampen my affection for the film. I focused exclusively on what I adored about the film – Hushpuppy’s complex relationship with her father, the lush south Louisiana landscape, the joy the characters project, etc. – and put aside my previous concerns. Also important: The sky-high expectations I had the first time I saw the film were more realistic this time around.

It hit me while watching Beasts of the Southern Wild for the second time in five days that I will need to see it a third time, and possibly even a fourth or fifth time, while it’s in the theaters. It is my culture, my people, my bayous depicted on that screen. Thus, I am deeply moved and filled with a sense of pride that is hard to explain to people not born in the Bathtub. So revelatory was my second viewing of Beasts of the Southern Wild that I considered seeing it a second time Friday night, but abandoned the idea because the day’s first viewing overwhelmed me.

Two scenes toward the film’s end punched me in the gut Friday.

The first featured Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, preparing the 6-year-old for his impending death. That it came after he heroically helped to drain the Bathtub of its floodwaters increased its poignancy.

“Everybody’s daddy dies,” the father reassured his child, after telling her he could no longer care for her.

“Not my daddy,” Hushpuppy responded, without blinking.

I can’t imagine seeing a scene with more emotional weight this year. It crushed me the first time I saw it and it crushed me again Friday. Here’s a man, whose mantra “I’ve got it under control” came with a bottle of liquid poison, finally accepting his fate – that he, Wink Doucet, does not have it under control.

Critics far and wide have hailed 6-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis’s performance as Hushpuppy, and rightfully so. But what Dwight Henry achieved as her father, capturing such a complicated man, was reminiscent of watching a miracle unfold before your eyes.

Later in the film, as he lay dying, Wink, the father who has implored his daughter not to cry, broke down, triggering a tear to race down Hushpuppy’s cheek. I tried to compose myself while watching this scene but tears rolled, like water breaching a doomed levee.

Resisting Beasts of the Southern Wild, as it turns out, is a futile enterprise.

LAGNIAPPE

A. I view Hushpuppy as an unreliable narrator. She’s 6 years old, after all. Therefore, I don’t think the woman who feeds her and then holds her at the bar is her mother. It’s interesting though that the status of her mother – whether she’s alive or dead – is ambiguous enough that the viewer could think it’s her mom.

B. Hushpuppy spends an inordinate amount of time yelling into the distance for her mother or searching for her father. It reminds me of the bayou version of getting lost in a grocery store as a kid and frantically running up and down the aisles until you are reunited with your parents. Remember: people in the bathtub don’t go to grocery stores to buy their food.

C. The movie has several hilarious moments. My favorite is Wink’s retelling of how Hushpuppy was conceived. Runner-up is Hushpuppy putting on the batting helmet and lighting the stove in an unorthodox way.

D. I appreciate how raw and rough around the edges Beasts of the Southern Wild feels. Director Benh Zeitlin often provides this texture with scenes where the characters are eating or catching seafood. The respect this film shows for the bayou way of life is staggering and much appreciated.

E. Never has a trailer looked so glamorous on film or in real life as Hushpuppy’s “house” did in the opening seconds of Beasts of the Southern Wild. What a gorgeous instance of foreshadowing with what appears to be a storm looming in the background. I also loved the final few seconds before the credit rolled. While the bathtub will eventually go underwater for good, Hushpuppy and crew will carry on the best they know how until that day comes.

F. I am genuinely disgusted that AMC 10 in Houma is not showing Beasts of the Southern Wild at the moment. It’s a film that was shot in Terrebonne Parish, for Ryan Gosling’s sake! The idea that people have to drive 60 miles to see a film shot in their own backyard, especially one that has received such breathless critical acclaim, is appalling.

4 thoughts on “Returning To The Bathtub: How My Opinion On Beasts Of The Southern Wild Changed”

  1. I caught the movie on its opening day in Houston after much excitement and waiting! I, too, had mixed feelings about the film but it won me over in the end.

    Here’s my bullet points.

    a) I was not impressed by the initial 30 minutes or so. I found the neglect/sometimes abuse of Hushpuppy really overwhelming and hard to take. This made it really difficult for me to sympathise with the father character. Likewise, I was really turned off by the scenes of total squalor and disrepair, worsened by a patchy and at times meandering narrative. Yes, the bayou and places like it are disorganised and rough around the edges, but there’s still a certain structure and beauty that’s essential to its character. I felt this was rather lacking in the portrayal here, instead replaced by a damn lot of mud.

    b) I didn’t get a strong sense of the place and what it was about before all heck started breaking loose. This was partially because I sort of expected things to be like they were in the setting, but was compounded by what I saw as rushed character development among the Bathtub residents. It was hard to buy the water draining from the bathtub part because I knew the settings co-existed, but that’s my own fault. Certain details also seemed to lack authenticity, for instance, there was almost no branch/tree debris after the storm.

    c) Maybe this was my fault for reading a lot of reviews, but I felt the filmmakers tipped their hand too far in revealing much of their most powerful imagery and words in the trailer/advance materials. The impact is diminished when you’ve already heard the lines while you were trying to organise your popcorn and seating arrangements for the movie you saw last week. I would have preferred to have been surprised.

    My favorite parts:
    e) Hushpuppy is awesome in the tender things she does, the hilarious stuff she says and most of all her sense that everything hinges on her. While it’s an emotion particularly prominent in kids, I think there’s also a universal deep-seated adult guilt about our responsibility for things, the stands we take or don’t take and what role in the confusing world we are supposed to play. It’s an incredibly powerful and elusive theme, and while portrayed in a sometimes inconsistent and disjointed way, still has some serious resonance.

    f) The last quarter of the film was by far its strongest as it gave way to a more consistent narrative of magical realism. Everyone is so defiant and proud — almost abrasively — in the early stages of the movie that that to finally see tenderness/weakness exhibited really rounded out the characters. The final scenes, particularly those with Hushpuppy and the beasts and her moments with her father are incredibly powerful. As was the scene her meeting with the beasts, when instead of fighting them she instead admits they are “kinda her friends.” That’s what makes them retreat, not an impassioned battle. There’s some truth in that when it comes to whatever demons/weird piglike animals are dogging us. I admit to not recognising any particular landmark (except, were those the TARC buses?!?!) until the final shot of the water lapping over Island Road, at which point I immediately began bawling my eyes out.

    Overall, I felt the execution was uneven at times, but in the end the drastically original and captivating premise and wonderful performances carried the film.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kat!

      Yeah, I had questioned how much the father loved Hushpuppy after the first time I saw the movie. It’s almost like Hushpuppy’s mom left him with a little bundle of joy he was unprepared to raise or did not want to raise. On the flip side, there are moments where he shows tenderness to her. It’s probably just his nature to be difficult with her – not to mention, he is drunk throughout the film. That part shouldn’t be forgotten.

      I stayed away from reviews and other articles of information. Until I saw the movie I had minimal idea what it was about. That’s why the global warming scenes threw me for a loop the first time I saw the film.

      I still wonder if this film needed the auruchs. Could the story have been told without them?

  2. I saw the movie last night without seeing any trailors. I saw the auruchs as the outside world encroaching on Hush Puppy’s life and community. Scary, foreign beasts that will destroy her world but inevitably she has to admit that they “kind of are” her friends. They will always be unpleasent to her but she accepts them for what they are – kind if what the Bathtub community is like for those of us who have never experianced it.

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