Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) July 14, 2012

First… where it takes us. Second… what it finds there. Third… How it presents these people, places, and ideas. And fourth: What, if anything, it suggests we take away from the experience.

There is a lot to consider when we talk about any movie. But Beasts of the Southern Wild gives us a lot more to talk about than most films.

Given that Beasts is one of most unusual movies to play for large audiences across the U.S. in 2012, I’m inclined to say very little about its storyline. Moviegoers will probably enjoy the movie more the less they know about it beforehand. So, in the hopes that you’ll have a rare and wonderful time at the movies, I will keep my description brief.

Having won tremendous appreciation at Sundance, and starring Louisianans who have never acted before, Beasts of the Southern Wild is sure to become a landmark work of independent filmmaking. The story about how it was made deserves a lot of attention, especially from aspiring filmmakers.

But its subject is also quite distinctive. Beasts takes us to a wild, richly textured, volatile environment—South Louisiana—to witness a frightful series of events in the days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.

Guided through a bayou neighborhood called “The Bathtub,” we meet a six-year-old child called “Hushpuppy” who is treading water, so to speak, in a turbulent sea of trouble. Hushpuppy, small as she is, marches across the screen with unforgettable bravado and personality. Her hair seems to explode from her head, a physical manifestation of her near-perpetual states of alarm, anxiety, and awe. In one unnerving incident after another, Hushpuppy makes small progress, learning how to take care of herself, how to love her dangerously temperamental father, how grieve for her absent mother, and how to show respect to her colorful and cantankerous neighbors.

With voice-over narration, Hushpuppy lets us into her philosophical interior monologue. And so we learn that, through clashes with her father and watchful encounters with neighbors and nature, she is piecing together a unique worldview, trying to make sense of loss, dangers, and awe-inspiring calamity.

And what a calamity. As The Bathtub exists in a danger zone, on the exposed side of levees, Hushpuppy’s world is doomed to flood when storms arrive.

But the storm seems to be just an extension of Hushpuppy’s intensifying crisis. Her mother is gone, and we’re not exactly sure why. Did she abandon her daughter and Wink, Hushpuppy’s father? Did she die? It’s painful to watch this little girl living with those razor-edged questions. And although Wink clearly cares about his daughter, he’s clearly endangered by an advancing disease, and prone to spells of violent, drink-fueled temper tantrums.

It is one of the film’s great strengths that it invites us to respect the people of the Bathtub for their fierce community spirit and “make the best of it” independence.

It is also a testament to the power of our myth-making imaginations, that Hushpuppy, growing up outside of any religious education or storytelling tradition, builds a fantasy world in which she can embody her fears and face them. (They appear as boar-like monsters, the kind of demons you expect to see in a film by Hayao Miyazaki, not in a film that stresses its own realism like this one.)

The inexperienced actors are entirely convicing, especially young Quvenzhané Wallis who deserves award consideration at the end of the year. She has a rare gift for appearing utterly convinced of what is happening around her, and completely unaware of the camera’s presence. Where most child actors seem eager to please, Wallis seems to actually fear for her life as the storms of weather and human behavior crash over her. Dwight Henry is also convincingly and discomfortingly persuasive as Wink. Their scenes together don’t seem crafted to fit familiar patterns, but have the particular and often meandering quality of lived experience.

Benh Zeitlin, a first-time director, arrives in exclamation points. He films this as if he has too busy capturing this vision to watch, or think about, how movies have been made before.

So why, then, do I find myself writing this with a sense of sadness and detachment? It’s because, unlike almost all of my colleagues, I was never inspired by this film. Impressed, yes. Enthralled, sometimes. But when the film goes for some kind of inspirational rush, I felt as if I had missed something… that what the film treats as a liberating epiphany is, actually, a reason for heartbreak.

I think my disillusionment with the movie has something to do with, to borrow Ebert’s famous line, “how it is about what it is about.” The mix of poetic cinematography and jarring, handheld video close-ups was distracting to me. (“But you love Terrence Malick’s films,” somebody will say, “and he does the same thing.” No, actually, I don’t believe that he does. I find that Malick’s images are constantly “speaking” to one another, suggesting poetic implications that accumulate in complexity and power as the film progresses. I don’t sense that kind of image-based dialogue here.)

But more than that, I think my disillusionment comes from what I think the film wants me to take away from it. It wants me to be inspired by Hushpuppy’s evolution from frightened child to kickass survivor, from heartbroken child to asserting “I’m the man!”

Hushpuppy is an endearing character. We can’t help but love her. But it seems to me, upon this first viewing, that the epiphany of her story really this: That she must pull herself up by her bootstraps, grow up, learn to accept excruciating and unfair losses, and fight back as an aggressive and assertive survivor. She will embrace the Bathtub’s “leave me alone” lifestyle, and let her freak flag fly. Her defiant “I’m the man!” seems to be the pivotal moment of the movie.

It struck me as strange that the film’s interest in the complexity of the Bathtub seems to stop at that territory’s borders. Law enforcement figures are portrayed as one-dimensional aggressors, even in their attempts to pull the Bathtub residents back from the descending hurricane. Even more distressing to me is the film’s depiction of humanitarian aid workers as uniformly threatening, insensitive, even hard-hearted.

“But this is from Hushpuppy’s point of view,” you might say. “She hasn’t been prepared to perceive them as anything else.” Perhaps.

But the film is not consistent in representing a reality distorted by Hushpuppy’s youthful naivete or wild imagination. Some scenes take on a certain surreality, as she struggles to reckon with dangers that no child should have to fear. But scenes involving aid workers contain no sign of a “Hushpuppy interpretation”—they’re played straight and literal. It struck me as a brutal protest against everyone who sought to reach out and help people endangered by calamity.

If “I’m the man!” is the lesson Hushpuppy must learn in order endure in hardship and transcend the failures of adults around her, fine. But the film seems to treat mere survival as a sort of ideal for humankind. And its frequent association of these beautiful, broken human beings with tenacious animals—it’s right there in the title—is similarly unsettling, as if their scrappy “I’ll do it my way” independence is not a path some take from necessity, but as if it is the life to which we should all aspire. I can believe that Hushpuppy would become a girl who fights for her community’s way of life, but I view the brashness, the defiance, the “Don’t mess with us” attitude as a problem, not a triumph. It is not a step in the direction of peace, understanding, reconciliation, healthy human relationships, and loving families. It is an affirmation of dangerous tribalism.

I offer these responses with implied question marks. Perhaps I’m overly troubled by parts of the movie, and perhaps I’ve missed or unfairly dismissed details that would bring balance and nuance to these characters and events. I’m sure a second viewing will tell me whether I am protesting on solid ground or if I’m misinterpreting what I saw.

But where so many emerged from Beasts of the Southern Wild feeling a kind of euphoria, I left sad and discouraged and even a little aggravated. Lessons like those that Hushpuppy learns might make her a survivor. But in the long run, does it enrich—or diminish—what distinguishes her as a human being? What is she becoming? It’s believable that she’d become a ruthless survivor… but does that merit the conclusion’s furiously celebratory tone?

At the end, I’m grieving at the absence of anything resembling love and compassion in Hushpuppy’s life. The music that those closing moments demand is something troubling and tragic, not a soaring, triumphant anthem.

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11 responses to “Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)”

  1. Thanks for giving voice to some of what I was feeling in watching this film, Jeffrey. I finally got around to watching it. And while it was a visceral, powerful film, I also felt some of the misgiving that you left the film with. I was inspired at Hushpuppy’s resilience and ability to overcome terrible circumstances. I was moved by her compassion for her dying father. But I was broken-hearted when she says, “I can count on two fingers the times I’ve been lifted.” Wow…for a child to have only been held twice in her life! She is consistently put in situations by the adults around her where she has to act like an adult. What does that do to a person? And the way that the filmmakers intend us to see the people of the Bathtub and Hushpuppy in particular as beasts who evolve based on survival of the fittest…Do they really mean for this to be a desirable thing? Or are they asking us to see this negatively and as diminishing human dignity? I was torn about this point and I’m glad you brought up the way the “beasts” image made you feel.

  2. I think Hushpuppy is a warrior and, while that is perhaps a key part of her character, it is not the only part of her character. She also has a bit of the seer in her and I think there are a couple of key lines in the film that are maybe the reasons I would disagree with your analysis. Her desire to “be cohesive” is not just about wanting to be strong, it’s not just about wanting to be fierce and pull herself up by her bootstraps. Hushpuppy wants to be WHOLE. Her triumph is not just in her strength (which is without doubt substantial) but also in her tenderness.

    In the moment when the priestess character (for lack of a better term) tells her and the other little girls “The most important thing I can teach you babies is that you need to take care of those littler and sweeter than you”, Hushpuppy is listening so hard, she is practically vibrating. She hears. She’s working it out. At 6, it’s going to take a few years to get there but that fierceness is going to be what allows her to love as completely as she will, not just fight as hard as she will.

    Could that eventually lead to the troubling kind of tribal attitude you’re talking about? Perhaps. I don’t believe it though. I came away from the film wishing I could be like Hushpuppy when I grew up. Wishing I could fight that hard, love that fiercely and be strong enough to not look away from what hurts.

    Just my brief thoughts on it. Definitely my favorite of the year so far. I appreciate your viewpoint though, it’s an interesting look. :)


  3. i’m also a little confused by your assertion that the movie’s perspective is inconsistent. why can’t a child’s perspective be very literal one moment and imaginative the next? it seems to me that that’s precisely how children experience the world.

    • Oh, I agree that children see the world in both imaginative and literal ways. Maybe I’m not being very clear: I just don’t see anything about the film’s depiction of the aid workers as hard-hearted and mean that suggests that this is Hushpuppy’s perception of them. It felt to me as if, in those sequences, the filmmakers — not Hushpuppy herself — were insisting on the reality of aid-worker cruelty. It felt like the movie had its own axe to grind with the humanitarian response. It’s one of those stretches in which I feel kicked out of Hushpuppy’s POV, and that kept me off balance.

      • ah. to me it makes perfect sense that she takes her cues about strangers from her father—who obviously is incredibly hostile toward the aid workers. and then they forcefully remove them from their home and at the shelter they separate her from her father. especially for someone who has no cultural context for aid workers, i think it would be deeply unrealistic for her to react any other way.

        • Oh, I agree! Hushpuppy’s reactions all make sense to me in view of what she’s going through, and in view of how she’s been taught to see the world. I just had a hard time feeling grounded in her POV. It felt like the camera backed up to *affirm* her perspective about the world… and if that’s what’s happening (again, I could be wrong) then we have a problem.

          Thanks. You’ve persuaded me that I really need to see this again.

  4. i think your misgivings about the bathub’s community are correct. but i think that’s part of the film’s design.

    we are supposed to disapprove of aspects of the bathtub’s community. we are supposed to feel that their hostility toward the aid workers is unfair. we are supposed to be scandalized by the image of the bombing of the levee. we are, after all, on the other side of the levee, on the other side of history.

    but on their side, they’re uninterested with our approval or disapproval—in the same way that we’re pretty ambivalent about they ways they might disapprove of us.

    in this sense, the movie invites us to examine our disapproval which is noble and perhaps even constructive in many ways. but it’s simultaneously true that it’s also condescending and ignorant—perhaps not all that different from the way the british empire felt about the savages who, inexplicably, resisted even their most benevolent attempts to bestow civilization upon them. that, i think, is the sense in which the movie invokes the concept of ‘beasts’.

    so ultimately, it’s a movie that tells the very human story of a daughter dealing with the death of her father. but it tells it in the context of a very foreign, very complex community—one that is, perhaps, mutually exclusive from our own. it waits for us to judge them—because judging is what we do. and then it asks why we think we know so much when, two hours ago, we didn’t even know they existed.

    • Thanks, David. Great stuff.

      This gets right to the heart of my frustration with the film. I *wanted* to be moved by the story of the girl dealing with her dying father. I cherish movies that invite us to take on the perspectives of people quite different than us.

      What threw me was that the movie didn’t just portray the Bathtub residents as perceiving the outside world as heartless and hostile. It portrays the outside world as heartless and hostile… period. And it didn’t just invite us to see and have empathy for their survivalist way of life; it affirmed, celebrated, and raised up that way of life as superior, concluding with a tone of “You’d damn well better get with our vision, or you’re in our way.”

      When you say, “it’s also condescending and ignorant”, are you referring to “our disappoval”… or “the movie”? I think you mean the movie invites us to see our own disapproval as ignorant and condescending. But I found the film, not just its residents, to be cruel and condescending toward the folks on the other side of the levee.

      That’s not the kind of work that invites compassion and bridge-building. That’s just cinema as us-versus-them protest.

      • I’ve recently developed an interest in this film. I have not yet seen it. I shall, however, see it soon especially since my having read Jeffrey Overstreet’s essay on it. And here’s why. Of all the other critics most of whom in general praise the film I find myself looking for criticism. I’d like to determine whether or not I can pick up on Jeffrey’s criticism on the issue of the film’s glorification of tribalistic and parochial independence.

        It’s all too common in modern reality to encounter the absurdly insular people and their ideas, which are readily mirrored in popular culture and politics. For example, U.S. media and presidential hopefuls who dogmatically refrain from criticism of Israel’s flagarant violation of human rights, but who are inordinately quick to cast premature and severe judgement on Iran–a theocratic government not so different from Israel and is home to the second largest populations of Jews in the middle east. Given the pervasive power of identity it would not surprise one to find that the director, Benh Zeitlin, might have ties to Israel’s goverment and its supporters who jointly facilitate the notion that the provincial us-vs.-the-world is the quintessential world-view.

        One would think that great film, as Jeffrey mentions, would invite compassion and bridge-building.

  5. I agree that triumph shouldn’t be the final note. Perhaps it was that which left my husband and me looking at each other saying, “What the heck did we just see?” We had to discuss it for some time to sort out our feelings.

    The film was definitely thought provoking but as regards Hush Puppy, I was troubled at the end. I was left with the feeling that this community was depending on a 6-year-old to lead them. Although I viewed much of it as a fantasy (which the director continually denies), I couldn’t see any level on which this was a good way to leave it. Although I didn’t have the “dangerous tribalism” response, I also was bothered by the contrast between stark refugee conditions and living in filth as the only two choices. I was further discouraged by the one nurturing person (who fed her and held her toward the end) having such a stark life lesson for Hushpuppy to meld into her personal mythology.

    That said it was the sort of movie that makes me quite interested to see what the director will do in the future when he’s got his own thoughts sorted out a bit better.