I was probably not the best audience for Beasts of The Southern Wild (2012, directed by Benh Zeitlin). I've been dealing with my first really prolonged period of depression in almost a decade and the last thing I needed to see is a movie that reminds me that the world is winding down. That its vision of a post-capitalist apocalypse is filtered through the eyes of a six year old child only makes me want to sit that child down so I can tell her, "Sorry about the dungheap we've left for you. Hope you can make a life out of it. The odds aren't in your favor. Good luck." I also wasn't in the mood for yet another indie film that mistakes a tripod for selling out. Just because your camera wanders all over the frame looking for a composition doesn't mean that your film has any degree of gritty realism. It just means that it looks un-directed. This movie has mythological monsters in it, for fuck's sake! Hold the camera still for a minute! Anyway, handheld cameras give me a headache these days. I almost yearn for the days when art films used long static takes with not much motion in them.
The story in Beasts of the Southern Wild is a shambolic assemblage of magical realism, millennial unease, and warmed over Joseph Campbell. The core of it is the relationship between our heroine, Hushpuppy, a six year old kid living in a wetland community on the coast of Louisiana called "The Bathtub," and her father, Wink, who is dying of blood poisoning. They squat in the wreckage of poor housing: Hushpuppy in a trailer placed high in the air to avoid high water, Wink in a shack built from the detritus of civilization. They are poor. Desperately poor. Wink drowns his pain in alcohol. Hushpuppy wanders through the world in a state of amazement, listening to the code she hears in the sounds of life. She doesn't realize that the world is out of joint at the beginning of the movie. She's about to learn, because there's a storm coming, part Hurricane Katrina, part global warming, part tribal eschatology. Hushpuppy has been told that aurochs once roamed the land, and the movie provides us with aurochs, large pig-like beasts that resemble reports of hogzilla, only with horns as well as tusks. As the storm passes, as the inhabitants of The Bathtub try to cling to their lives in its aftermath, Hushpuppy must deal with the fact that her father is slipping out of her life.
All of the actors in this movie are untrained non-actors, and if the movie does one thing well, it's coaxing performances out of its leads. This is especially true of Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy. She's given the weight of the film to carry and she almost never drops it. Her performance is surprisingly nuanced for such a young child, and I wonder at how director Benh Zeitlin coaxed some of her scenes out of her. Dwight Henry's Wink is a more one-note character, but he's more a plot device than a character. The rest seem like stereotypes, whether the colorful poor people who live in The Bathtub or the ominous government types who eventually evacuate them from the area. The film's production design is less assured. There's an element of poverty porn in the wreckage in this movie, which has the unpleasant notion that very poor people are dirty by nature. This kind of reinforces some notions of the Southern grotesque, too. The decor and the emphasis on meat (including ghastly shots of dead animals) are reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are some clever repurposings of familiar objects, but really, we've seen this before in other post-apocalyptic movies. This film merely omits the fetish outfits and action sequences.
Hushpuppy is pretty young as heroes go, particularly as heroes who go on hero's journeys go, but this is the chronicle of her passage from innocence to experience. In the beginning, she's a kind of unspoiled innocent and the movie goes to pains to debunk all of her childhood illusions: the steady presence of her father, her notion that the world runs like clockwork, the idea that her absent mother is in the light on the horizon at night. We visit all of these ideas, each in turn, and watch as Hushpuppy sees her world replaced by something infinitely darker than where she lived at the movie's outset. This debunking of Hushpuppy's world is at odds with the mytho-poetic idiom in which the story is told. This is a movie that lays on the symbolism thick. I'm still decoding it in my mind. I'm not even sure what the damned aurochs were supposed to represent, though I have my ideas. Because I'm a suspicious type, I'm looking askance at how the film's symbolism correlates to political realities that seem to be finding expression in this film's events. I mean, the parallels to Katrina are unmistakeable, and there's a sense that global warming is going to be the undoing of us all (and it probably is), but there's also a conservative fear of government, incarnated in the notion that FEMA camps are a new kind of concentration camp. This film has nothing nice to say about the efforts of disaster workers. Maybe with cause, but also maybe with paranoia. Throw this on the pile of recent films that dances around an ideological viewpoint without embracing it. It waffles, even as it textures its film frame with a Malick-esque rendition of nature violated by civilization. The shadows of the refineries across the levy are ominous in their distant indifference.
Maybe this film's wishy washy ideology is wise in the end. While Hushpuppy may not be too young to experience the outright hostility of the universe, she's mercifully spared the horror and folly of politics. At least for a little while.