Friday, June 15, 2012

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

“In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”
Hushpuppy is six and the Bathtub is a magical place that has frequent holidays, parties whipped up at a second's notice, and where it is more beautiful than the place where all the other people live. It also contains dangers like crocodiles and big storms that can blow water over everything and everyone who doesn't leave for higher ground. Hushpuppy's daddy shows equally mysterious qualities, alternating between pronouncing powerful life lessons and sudden unexpected rages. Mama is gone and that is also shrouded in mystery. Whether this is a land of fable or real is also a mystery until the film unfolds and we have entered Hushpuppy's world completely.

Told completely from the young girl's mind, Hushpuppy's life is a mixture of myth, half-understood facts, and fantasy, all cobbled together into a seamless whole that informs her understanding of life, the universe, and everything. Her world contains chickens and aurochs side by side with equal ease, shown in atmospheric vignettes rather than as a straight storyline. As Hushpuppy incorporates new information into her worldview, so do we, which was emphasized by having handheld cameras at her height and using music to communicate her mindset.

I am loathe to say more because I believe this movie is best appreciated without preconceptions. I won't lie. The movie finished and while everyone clapped, Tom and I sat there thinking, "What did we just see?" It wasn't because we were swept away in wonder. It was because this is the sort of movie that I had to sort through and ponder to understand what I even thought of it.

I've had that sense of disorientation thrice before, after seeing Lost in Translation, Memento, and In Bruges.  Obviously, Beasts of the Southern Wild is in good company. All are films that I eventually grew to love but that left me unsure of my feelings immediately afterward. Reflection was needed to understand all that Lost in Translation says about marriage, all that Memento says about truth, and In Bruges' message about salvation and redemption. They also required a second viewing for full appreciation and I think that Beasts of the Southern Wild is the same.

Beasts of the Southern Wild does not tell its story perfectly but when one considers this is a first-time director who was working with first-time actors, as well as writing the script, then I believe he did very well indeed. One thing I did know immediately afterward was that director Benh Zeitlin is a talent to be watched in the future. He clearly has some specific points to make but was a good enough story teller to wreathe them in this original tale of myth and mystery, while leaving viewers with questions of their own to answer. I love a director who is courageous enough to let the audience make a movie their own and that is what Zeitlin did here.

Young Quvenzhané Wallis is, as so many have observed, also a force to be reckoned with in the future. She carries the entire movie and, although it seems absurd that a six-year-old could be so formidable an actress, Wallis handled it easily. Dwight Henry, a New Orleans baker discovered by the film crew, as Wink (Hushpuppy's father) was also impressive and it was difficult to believe that he'd never acted before. He hinted at a big acting project and I am eagerly anticipating seeing his future work.

The film does sag a bit in the middle and I was irresistibly reminded that some Cannes and Sundance winners are not exactly what most regular people like me would call a good film. However, it did come together in time. With more experience Zeitlin will be able to avoid such sags altogether. The hand-held camera sequences were effective but too close and jittery for my comfort a lot of the time.

Altogether, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film I am glad I saw, one that provided much food for thought, and one that I look forward to watching again so that I can sink more fully into the tale of a Hushpuppy who lives with her daddy in the Bathtub.

Ratings Note: PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality.

The film comes to theaters July 4. Here's the trailer.

Here's Rebecca Cusey's interview with the director ... I would caution you to read it AFTER seeing the movie.

THOUGHTS which contain some SPOILERS
(Seriously. Go see the movie. This will still be here when you come back. Then, we can talk!)

Some of my thoughts after reflection.
  • The beasts of the southern wild are the people living in the Bathtub.

  • Also the Bathtub dwellers are ... the cave people. Hence, the continuing message that strength and self-sufficiency are all important, from the father, the teacher, and all residents.

  • Global warming is a recurrent theme and the director said in the Q&A afterwards that he'd realized that the series of hurricanes (like Katrina) will just keep coming, so that was an important theme. As someone who married into a family from Houston, with a big branch in New Orleans, I had to laugh. That series of storms has been coming from way before this wave of global warming.

    However, I also have to give Zeitlin credit. There is none of the whining that usually goes with such a message. Because they are "cave men" they do not worry about trying to change the environment. Survival in harsh circumstances requires strength, bravery, and endurance. This is the lesson from everyone. And it occurs to me that it is not a bad lesson, especially when I look at some of the "problems" that I hear people complaining about, which are not problems at all.

  • The big question ... the one that I still find coming back over time ... is the tension that we are shown between living in squalor in the Bathtub and living safely in a more sterile environment. The director said that this came from his fascination with the people who won't leave their homes during hurricanes. Those images from the movie mixed with my recent reading of the Civil war novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and the federal government's HHS mandate which is threatening religious liberty in America. I do not have the answers. The pondering continues.

    What price safety? How far do we go in allowing people to make their own decisions, to live their lives in the way that they think is best ... even if we do not agree? Do we allow them the right to be wrong?

    I'll be honest. This was a problem for me in watching the movie. I kept having to re-suspend my disbelief as I watched that little girl living in some terrible surroundings. I kept thinking that she needed to live somewhere else. And then I'd remind myself that it is a movie. Later, though ... later I realized that these questions are part of our lives today.

    To some people, Catholics are living in the Bathtub. Our desire to practice our faith in peace seems ludicrous over a "little thing" like contraception. To them, the government worrying that some person somewhere is missing out on a benefit is much more important than living according to deep felt convictions. Is it better to be plugged into the wall? Is it better to be in the fish tank? Or is it better to be allowed to use our own judgment and live without the advantages that would make us miserable?

  • A realization. When explorers of old discovered different groups of people, they would begin assimilating them, whether they wanted it or not. The most striking example were the Indians of the Americas, however it also applied to the Japanese, Africans, or whoever was in the path of civilization. Ideally, this was carried out from motives of Christian love for neighbor, to help each person realize their full and best potential as one of God's children. Obviously, true motives and results varied, depending on the situation.

    Beasts of the Southern Wild made me realize that secular American society, if not Western society as a whole, continues to follow that Christian model, albeit without Christ much of the time. For one's own good, one must follow society's model, even if one does not wish to be "rescued." Although those same societies would abhor imposing their standards upon a newly discovered aboriginal tribe deep in the South American jungle, they think nothing of imposing it upon the inhabitants of the Bathtub against their will. The same behavior that they abhor is readily adopted in this circumstance. Again, I do not necessarily have any judgment about this, but it is an interesting realization which I was able to see thanks to the illustration of this film.

  • I also admired a lot of the techniques the filmmakers used ... the music communicating Hushpuppy's mood and thought ... the white light to signal Hushpuppy's thoughts about her mother ... Hushpuppy gently covering her father with her last token of her mother as she followed her teacher's directions to take care of those littler and weaker than themselves ... and her immediate departure for the quest to find her mother, in order to help both her father and herself. Beautifully done.

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