Beasts of the Southern Wild (2/5)
Ah, the joys of poverty. It’s really a load off when you don’t have to worry about being shackled to a job, or having to please your boss, or accumulating an excess of money. The fortunate poor can spend their days getting in tune with nature or drinking with a few of their best friends. Who needs money when mother earth seems so willing to spontaneously generate grains, potable water, and livestock?
At least this seems to be the message of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the type of movie about a poor community in the South that could only have been made by a member of the bourgeois from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Beasts of the Southern Wild is an insidious film. It purports to be about people struggling to make it in the world, but it’s actually about the urban elite’s desire to take a camping trip, get away from the hustle of the city, and maybe go canoeing.
The movie doesn’t take place in our world, not exactly. Instead the movie attempts to craft a world of magical realism where a large scale ecological disaster can unfreeze giant boars and where crushing poverty is a choice rather than a failure of the economy. And yet at the same time the film wants to be about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans’s underclass. It would be easy to claim that the movie can’t have it both ways—that it can’t be a fantasy world that also grapples with difficult real world problems. But of course that’s just not true. Plenty of movies have delved into the world of make believe in order to get a better perspective on real world events. The problem is that Beasts just doesn’t do this very well.
Beasts’s protagonists is Hushpuppy, a girl about nine years old who lives with her drunken abusive father in a place called the Bathtub. In what’s assuredly one step removed from images of the noble savage, the movie portrays the denizens of the Bathtub as self-sufficient people who love drinking, dancing, and fireworks. Their world is eventually upended when some sort of environmental catastrophe ends up flooding the Bathtub and everything else below a series of levees. While a number of people choose to pack up and leave before they get hit with the flood, Hushpuppy and her father decide to face the storm head on, and they eventually hold up with several other men women and children who also refused to leave their homes. Even after the flood they appear to manage pretty well until, that is, a group of faceless government agents apparently borrowed from E.T. come across these survivors. The last residents of the Bathtub are taken to a hospital where they are forced to get medical attention and Hushpuppy even has to wear a dress. But Hushpuppy and her folks haven’t given up yet. They organize a prison break of sorts, which, as far as I can tell, consists mostly of pushing over several doctors and nurses who seemed uninterested in chasing them down in the first place.
If we are going to read this narrative as a corollary to New Orleans after Katrina (and the film seems to invite this reading), then there are a number of problems. Where the film shows Bathtub residents choosing either to flee or wait out the storm, a large majority of New Orleans residents had no such choice. Many people stayed in New Orleans prior to the storm because they did not have the money, the transportation, or the accommodations to get out of the city. To represent this as a clear choice, and, furthermore, to suggest that those who left were running away like wimps (not the film’s preferred choice of words), is at best lunkheaded and at worst offensive to those who died during Hurricane Katrina. Later the film suggests that Hushpuppy, her father and the rest would have been fine if the “gul’ dern gov’ment” hadn’t gotten into their business. The central problem after Hurricane Katrina wasn’t too much government—it was that the government had essentially disowned an entire city. In fact, the people of New Orleans had difficulty getting any substantive assistance from their own government for a number of days.
I could go on about the film’s uneven handling of alcohol, its narrative failures, and total lack of characterization beyond Hushpuppy. But because my mother taught me right, I’ll end by pointing out a few things I liked. The visuals are at times striking (even if a little too reminiscent of those pretentious Levi’s ads). Quvenzhané Wallis turns in a great performance in the lead role, especially considering that she has to pretty much carry the entire movie. I admit that I enjoyed watching her run around and yell like an animal. And the giant boars were pretty cool. Maybe next time the director should include more giant boars.