If Disney ever made a film about the post-apocalypse, it might look something like the first twenty minutes of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film so gorgeously designed, soulfully acted and inventively produced that I feel kind of bad for not liking it more than I did.
Hushpuppy, an adorable maternal orphan who speaks to animals lives with her drunk, terminally ill, possibly abusive father in The Bathtub (a sort of micro-Saint Bernard Parish; poor, ramshackle homes balanced on the edge of a grey sea and a massive levee protecting the “civilized” folks above). When the ice caps melt, the bathtub is submerged and big-ass prehistoric pig monsters (called Aurochs, though in real life those were more like neolithic cows) emerge from the polar ice, she embarks on a quest to find her place in the universe. Hit the jump for my review of the Blu-ray.
I don’t think I’ve gone into a movie so psyched to love it since, maybe Star Wars: Episode I and, for about half the running time, Beasts of the Southern Wild works. The unique, tactile, modern-mythical world that Benh Zeitland has created is impressive. The Bathtub is a living, breathing place that feels more discovered than created. A treehouse mobile home, a scrap wood dragon, a truck bed motorboat; houses, vehicles and costumes are cobbled together from refuse and found objects while the Aurochs are real animals, created by putting little fuzzy hats on pot-bellied pigs. It looks better than it sounds, impressive and adorable in equal measure.
The cast, mostly Louisiana locals with no acting experience, absolutely inhabit their roles. The lion’s share of praise has gone to Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy and she earns every accolade she’s received. Her natural, easy going charm goes a long way toward selling a character that, on the page, probably shouldn’t work as well as she does. Dwight Henry, a restaurant owner from New Orleans’ Seventh Ward has the tougher roll as Wink, Hush Puppy’s boozy, erratic but ultimately loving father. Wink is a fun, scenery chewing kind of character and Henry dives into it with both feet, embodying the powerful, sometimes scary force of nature that parents so often seem to be. Finally, Gina Montana, creates a strong, sassy and sympathetic character as tattooed schoolteacher Miss Bathsheba.
Everything leading up to the moment the levees break is absolutely spot on and, from beginning to end, it maintains an emotional honesty that works. You feel for Hushpuppy and you really want what is best for her. But, eventually, I started to wonder if the movie wanted the same thing. From the beginning, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a story about home. Despite the fact that they live in squalor, the citizens of The Bathtub are fiercely proud of their little part of the world. The Bathtub is rough, wild place and Wink wants to make Hushpuppy just as wild and rough as their home. This explains some of his borderline-abusive behavior but, despite portraying this as the right thing to do, the movie never really makes a strong case for it.
Over and over, the story shows that characters remain in the flooded Bathtub by choice. Just prior to the flood, all but a handful of the citizens leave, presumably for someplace safe. After Wink and his alcoholic buddies blow up the levee they remain, despite the fact that the earth has been literally salted. When the mainlanders take them to the emergency they escape and return once again to the now desolate bathtub. Finally, Hushpuppy finds a loving mother figure on the floating dance bordello but leaves her behind to, once more, return to the bathtub.
It adds up to a message that feels like “home is a place;“ love and comfort are less important than a plot of land. If the outside world were shown as being worse, or if the Bathtub were shown as being less horrifying, this might have worked for me. But, we never really get to see any of that. The only part of the “outside world” we ever see is an emergency shelter and, frankly the people there seem decent. They really want to help these folks who have lost everything (even if does mean putting Hushpuppy in a stupid looking dress). There are big, imposing smokestacks dotting the horizon but the bathtub, choked with garbage and human refuse, isn’t living in concert with nature either. While there are a few fun looking, super-drunk party scenes, Hushpuppy doesn’t seem all that happy while she’s there.
About forty minutes into the movie, I leaned over to my girlfriend and, at that moment knowing nothing about the filmmakers, said “I bet you this was made by young, upper-middle class white people.” This insight turned out to be true. Full disclosure, I grew up in poverty. When I was seven years old, my family of six people lived in a twelve foot travel trailer deep in the Oregon woods. Destitution is not, on its own, noble or fun. I could identify with scenes of Hushpuppy, playing in the filth, at peace with her universe, because it is the only thing that she’s ever known. This feels honest and true. The underlying metaphor doesn’t.
The title “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is meant to have a double meaning (like “The Walking Dead”) and I think that title (the play it’s based on is awesomely called Juicy and Delicious) and it is made very clear about halfway through that Hushpuppy Wink and the others are the titular Beasts. But, that strikes me as more than a little condescending. The whole thing has an odor of “poverty tourism” that I couldn’t shake.
There are good people and bad people in all walks of life and our nobility is defined by our actions. Beasts of the Southern Wild gives us lower class characters whose actions are not, taken outside of the context of their class, particularly noble and upper class characters whose actions are not, taken outside of that same class context, particularly corrupt. Like the Noble Savage trope of old Westerns, it asks us to assume that The hardship of life in the Bathtub creates inherently good folks, while the (assumed, remember you never see it) luxury of life above the levee creates people who are inherently somehow less worthy.
There is a nuanced film about class, home, tradition and love that seems to be lurking in the film’s peripheral vision. At times, it all comes together and really makes it feel like that’s what you’re seeing. But, what you’ve actually got is a beautifully told story that doesn’t know what it’s actually about.
There are deleted scenes with commentary, a theatrical trailer and some documentaries:
- The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild
- Glory at Sea
- The Aurochs
None of it is bad and the making of doc does a lot to sell to sell how much of at least a purely technical triumph the movie is.
What it’s missing is a full length director commentary. After finishing the movie, I really wanted some insight into what the creators were thinking.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is, in many ways, a remarkable film. It’s beautiful, has an amazing score, great performances and an moving, emotional tone, only slightly undercut by some naive, sort of condescending themes.
And, I have had more interesting discussions around this film than any other this year.
Final Grade: B