Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

There was a little movie that appeared this year, that I became desperate to see as soon as I learned what it was about. That movie, of course, was Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Ha ha, no. Actually, it was Beasts of the Southern Wild, and depending on how big a film geek you are, you’re either nodding wisely or making a Derp face. I just saw BotSW and was pretty floored. I loved it. It thought it was amazing. So did my parents. So did most film critics, judging by the amount of drool pooling on the floors of film festival screening rooms. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was baffled by it. And I have since heard from people who absolutely hated it. I’m fascinated by a polarizing film and it appears we have one on our hands here. Time to blog about this weird little movie and why it succeeds or fails, depending on who you ask. Keep in mind I’m biased in its favor. Kind of.

The plot of Beasts of the Southern Wild in one sentence: A young girl finds that her world has been thrown into turmoil, and tries to put things right. The girl is named Hushpuppy; she’s six years old, talks to the animals, and, like many girls her age, is fairly sure that she has the Universe figured out. Her home is the Bathtub, a ramshackle knot of people clinging to the soggy, frayed edge of Southern Louisiana. These people are desperately poor, but happy; they basically exist on another planet, cut off from civilization by levees. Everyone looks after everyone else. Everyone feels wealthy. Hushpuppy and her dysfunctional father, Wink, live in separate shacks and watch each other’s backs, or try to. It’s an unlikely Eden, just begging to crumble. And crumble it does. Things go wrong with implacable awfulness, and in the mind of little Hushpuppy, the Wrong in her life meshes with the Wrong in all nature, all things. Her father disappears for awhile, then returns in a hospital gown. He won’t talk to her. Storm clouds loom. Hushpuppy starts a fire in a burst of petty impulse. Her father hits her. She punches him in the chest, and countless miles away, at the bottom of the world, an iceberg cracks to reveal something huge, bestial, and still alive within. Then all hell breaks loose.

Long story short, Hushpuppy is certain that the Universe is out of whack, and it’s her fault. We’ve all been there. We’ve been that small child who did something naughty, then wept as we became convinced that big, awful, earth-shaking things would happen as a result. Hushpuppy watches as her home floods, her neighbors flee, her father sickens -- but she is so clear-eyed and practical that she reacts, not with dread, but with sensibility: I did it, it’s done, I’m sorry, now how do I fix it? Maybe her long-lost mother, said to possess a supernatural beauty, can be of assistance -- if Hushpuppy can find her. She sets out on a quest that isn’t too far removed from Homer’s Odyssey. Meanwhile, those unfrozen beasts from the glacier are on the move. They are Aurochs: massive and boarlike, they once roamed the primordial wilderness, and now they’re back, and getting closer by the minute. (I have to say that the Aurochs in the film are truly stunning, a flawless example of how to do special effects right.) Obviously, everything is going to collide, but will Hushpuppy make it through with her parents and home intact? Or is she about to learn some harsh lessons that will shatter her bubble?

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie about feelings and emotions, mostly. Shot with a hand-held camera, it gives us a child’s eye view. Things seem both less and more real at once. The Bathtub doesn’t seem like an actual place (not to me, anyway), but more like one of Hushpuppy’s charcoal drawings brought to life. Likewise, the Aurochs look like what she thinks, not what science thinks, and the movie refuses to admit if they’re even real, or if Hushpuppy is giving ordinary events a mythic slant in her own head. It’s a beautiful use of an unreliable narrator, and it wouldn’t work half as well without the actress who plays Hushpuppy, Quvenzhan√© Wallis. She’s gonna get an Oscar nod. She’s like a stabilizing bolt of lighting driven through the film. Her little face is solemn, stubborn, scared, curious, and utterly real. I find it interesting that some of the best “acting” I’ve seen comes from very young children. I guess they’re still at the point where there’s little difference between the real and the cinematic. They can more easily make the movie real in their minds. Appropriate, since BotSW is about a child’s idea of reality. We hear Wallis narrate the film, her Southern drawl betraying nothing but utmost conviction. She’s luminous. And here’s an amazing thing: for once, her race is utterly superfluous. Hushpuppy and Wink are black, but no one cares. The residents of the Bathtub are an ethnic mishmash, and even when “outsiders” appear, the segregation is social rather than racial. How many films can say this? How many films about black people can say this? I’m impressed, and hopeful.

Just like all those other critics, I’ve made this movie sound amazing. But like I said, some people hate it with a passion. I’m not gonna say they’re wrong, because I’ve heard them make valid points. The main argument against BotSW is that it glorifies things that we should be moving away from. Our heroes are dirt-poor, anarchic, lawless, and often drunk. They look with suspicion and hostility upon “civilized folk,” and fight like jackals when the authorities try to evict them, even after the Bathtub becomes unlivable. Wink is quite the piece of work, ranting and posturing and trying to force manhood upon his little daughter (Hushpuppy is quite androgynous for most of the film, and you get the sense it’s to please her dad). We’re supposed to root for this behavior, apparently. We’re supposed to ignore the fact that the Bathtubbers are being kind of stupid and irresponsible. Their dirty, hardscrabble, alcohol-soaked community is supposed to be some sort of Utopia because neighborly bonds and spiritual freedom are way better than material wealth. Right. Fine. Good argument. If you want to hate this movie’s philosophy, go ahead. But I do have a counter-argument.

I say, Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t real. Well, duh, it’s fiction. But more than that, it is not supposed to depict the real world at all. It’s a bit of an allegory, really, quite open-ended. Are we seeing inside Hushpuppy’s mind? Is the whole thing just a story being told, a tale-within-a-tale? Everything is a bit too stylized. The plot runs on fairy-tale logic. It would be one thing if there were clear boundaries between Hushpuppy’s point of view and reality, but there’s no boundaries at all. The impossible things that happen, happen. The Aurochs are real and solid. And we all know that’s impossible, right? So if that’s the case, the whole film is impossible. So I say, it doesn’t matter whose side we’re on, because the movie’s using a real-world context to create a world that’s notably sideways from the real. Besides, it’s Hushpuppy’s movie. It’s her POV. We’re seeing the Bathtub as Paradise and her deadbeat father as a good guy because she does. She’s allowed to be wrong. Who the heck has the world truly figured out when they’re six? The point is Hushpuppy knows what she knows, and it doesn’t matter if that’s strictly true or false. It’s her reality; we’re just visiting.

This is a movie about innocence. The painful thing is that we, as adult viewers, know that Hushpuppy’s innocence isn’t going to last. Her world is hard and tragic, and she’s eventually going to grow up and discover reality for herself. But for now, she’s a little girl with magic powers, and she lives in the most marvelous place on Earth, and the ground shakes with the hoofbeats of terrifying, amazing creatures who have either come to protect or to destroy, whichever one she requires. Nothing in BotSW may be real in a technical sense, but it’s real in the mind of a six-year-old, and how cynical do you have to be to deny this little girl her fairy tale? Let her be happy. Let her figure things out for herself. Or, if you disagree and think this movie is sloppy and irresponsible, keep in mind that it’s all just a story.

And I find this particular story worth listening to.

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