(Originally posted at www.tkatthemovies.com)
Writing something about Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild so soon after a first viewing doesn’t seem wise. In an hour and a half, the film swirls through countless images and just as many ideas, some of them tangential to our reality and others completely spun from the imagination of its young protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis). Furthermore, the film has been hyped since its warm reception at the Sundance Film Festival, making audiences prone to both mindless bandwagoning and contrarian backlash.
And yet, I feel a need to document my thoughts about this film before I see it a second time. This is not so much a traditional review as it is a way for me to think through my apprehensions about a movie I liked very much.
At times frustrating, the film awes with its wonder and honesty. There are flaws to be sure, but many of the apparent issues seem to stem organically from the film’s commitment to its central young girl’s perspective. Like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, Beasts juxtaposes the anxieties of a young character with a fantastical distillation of said worries. But unlike Jonze’s film, Zeitlin’s movie is not necessarily about childhood, but rather an incredibly adult world through the eyes of a child.
The bond between Hushpuppy her father Wink (Dwight Henry) provides the emotional core of the movie. It is a problematic relationship – Wink is in no position to be a strong father, due to his ailing health and short temper. Hushpuppy’s consciousness is shaped by his stories about a long-gone mother and the world beyond the levee, and yet he cannot live without her. The film chronicles the transition from a father taking care of his daughter to a daughter taking care of her father. Figuratively speaking, it’s like a beautifully messy portrait of the years before Chishu Ryu struggles to let Setsuko Hara go.
Joshua Rothkopf at Time Out New York liked the film much less than I did, but he articulated some of my apprehensions incredibly well. This film certainly borrows the imagery of post-Katrina New Orleans with minimal social comment, and furthermore, it appears to demonize the federal responses to disasters and modern medicine in general. (Would this family be punished for not buying health insurance?)
But if the world beyond the bathtub is scary and unfamiliar, it’s because Beasts is Hushpuppy’s story. If Pan’s Labyrinth didn’t quite work (and it didn’t), it’s because of the film’s tenuous connection between the horror-fantasy and fascist Spain. In Beast, each and every detail can be attributed to the protagonist’s consciousness and how her life experiences have shaped her worldview. Wink rejects the medial care of the response team, but he starts to walk right back once Hushpuppy is on a bus to go somewhere, anywhere that’s not the building where she might see him die. It makes sense that these white people in clean clothes are scary because Hushpuppy (and therefore we as the audience) have been conditioned to think this way. The dad seems avoidant because he’s trying desperately to hide his pain from Hushpuppy (and us). When that pride finally melts away, it’s heartbreaking.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film emphasizes the importance of local communities. While the Bathtub’s backstory and customs are not fully developed, Beasts puts stock in local culture. The film dances that tricky line between a helpful government response and an intrusion on the sort of cultures that make the world vibrant. A government is certainly needed, but perhaps too often we forget the value in New Orleans or Little Tokyo or the Bathtub. The Bathtub’s traditions might seem silly, but a privileged, gentrified perspective could interpret just about any unfamiliar tradition as such.
I did not touch upon the freshness of the movie or Wallis’ staggering performance in detail, and indeed, I could have written an entire post on how much I loved this movie. But I’ve addressed the questions that have been floating around in my own mind while avoiding most reviews (as I always do before writing something). This is by no means a perfect movie, but it swept me away while I was watching it and still has me thinking days after I’ve seen it. If you wanted a traditional review, that’s the most ringing endorsement I could give.