Beasts of the Southern Wild

20 Mar

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie that I don’t love all the way, but it does make me think, which is a lot more than many films do these days. I’d definitely call it a movie worth watching, but what does it actually say? This question has been rattling around my brain for a couple of weeks and I’m ready to try to answer it.

First–the basics–this is a survival story pure and simple, where a community from New Orleans adapts and survives the force of hurricane Katrina. My first thought was about how Katrina has moved from being a current event to a historical one without me noticing. I know some years have passed, and in the last decade and a half we have quite a few gigantic events that end up being historical but after the ho-hum 90’s it’s interesting to mark the time between where we say “this is now” to “this happened.” It’s longer than I originally thought–9-11 in its way lasted 1 day, but also 10 years, and Katrina held on long after the final winds died down.

Anyway, this neighborhood adapts and survives. That is all. It’s seen through the eyes of a little girl, Quvenzhané Wallis, known in this movie as hushpuppy, and she is one of the best child actors ever. She does not play cute, she does not mug, she roars through this movie with a precocious strength that is almost terrifying–around her all the other characters, as likable as they are, fade to grey. About the only character who can stand toe to toe with her and still be noticed is her father.

Anyway, Beasts cuts the world in two camps, consumers and survivors. The theme is contrasting how these two groups live. The survivors feel pain but have great moments of joy as they scramble from crisis to crisis. They are the beasts–not in a horrible sense, but in a sense that they live in an older, less conceptual manner. The consumers we see in the hurricane shelter–plugged into walls where they can live, sitting and waiting, and doing little else. There’s a certain sense of a fear of death leaving everybody stuck in an endless limbo.

And this is where the message grates on some–the idea that the really poor have depths and wisdom while the urban citydweller lives an empty and commodified life is a bit simplistic. Wisdom and ignorance lives in both places. And there’s a little danger in praising the beast sides of us too much–there’s a certain kind of wisdom there, sure–but there’s also violence and lack of reason and not trusting plans and all sorts of impulses that need to be aimed correctly lest they get dangerous. However, the alternative here is sitting in some waiting room allowing others to take care of you, like penned up beasts is no better. That’s the thing, beasts are beasts, they can be trapped or free, but you don’t change them.

The film is brave enough to show the disenfranchised without rose-colored glasses. Their area does not get better, they just continue surviving in it, and not all do. And as much as the word “noble savage” gets thrown around whenever people talk about this movie, it’s not really about that. It’s more about “noble childhood” and how Hushpuppy survives a world that completely broke by owning herself. Do I believe that’s possible? I don’t know. But I want to.

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