Beasts of the Southern Wild: one of the stories we don’t usually hear

Why did I wait so long to see Beasts of the Southern Wild? That was incorrect! If you’ve made a similar mistake, please correct that as soon as possible.

Updated July 1, 2014: While listening to bell hooks speak, I discovered that she had written a piece explaining her many significant objections to this film. Please also read it: No Love in the Wild. I am not going to edit my own post but on reading her piece I could absolutely see her viewpoint as well and it’s more informed than mine. So make sure you read her thoughts! :)

First and most overwhelming reason why? Quvenzhan√© Wallis. Wallis is a treasure. When I watch very young child actors I’m sometimes unsure if they are acting, or if their personality just goes with the character well. So if you see this film on DVD, you must watch the “making of” special included at the end. Watching “Nazie” which is the nickname the cast and crew call her, it’s simply amazing to see this cheerful, often silly five year old transform herself into the resilient, determined Hushpuppy.

Hushpuppy is a young girl living with her father in trailers in a poor rural area known as The Bathtub. Now when I say “poor rural” you probably have some thoughts about that. So let me be clear, their town is full of people who enjoy each other’s company (especially at community festivals), raise their own food, and send their children to school. It’s on the edge of the water, outside of a levee set up to protect the nearby city when the melting polar ice caps raise the water level.

As they are about to do.

The people in the Bathtub could move into the city, but they choose not to. Hushpuppy’s father even refuses to evacuate as a super-size storm blows in. He believes to his core they are survivors, and that the Bathtub is their home. Unfortunately this is no mere storm, but the destruction of their town by a flood. Hushpuppy, her father, and some of the other residents who didn’t leave but did survive the storm then must rebuild their lives in the now half-submerged town. They set up the school as their main dwelling and go back to raising crops and animals for food.

But the sea water that covers what used to be their town is slowly killing their food sources. So a Hushpuppy’s father and a few of the other residents decide on a drastic course of action to save their home.

There’s a lot going on in this film. Family and community, magic and history, concern for the environmental mess we’ve created. And clearly, it’s impossible to watch Beasts of the Southern Wild without thinking about real natural disasters, and government and media responses to those disasters. Especially Katrina, though the situations are not parallel. I grew up in U.S. culture, which disrespects people who are poor and people of color. So for people who don’t have experience as part of similar communities, it’s easier than it should be to judge the decisions made by these characters that do put themselves, their children, and eventually the safety of the people inside the levee in terrible danger. Even when you know very little about their lives and culture, which considering how rarely these type of stories are told… a lot of people really don’t have the full picture.

But even if you are qualified to judge those decisions (and you may be, if your life history is different from mine), it’s abundantly clear that the “rescuers” from inside the levee should be judged. They create fear with their arrival, they use violence to “save” people, and the medical staff especially treat the residents of the Bathtub with shocking disrespect and profound lack of cultural awareness. There is no excuse in disaster relief, human services, health care, or child care for this kind of behavior. And yet “help” is often delivered like this in real life.

It’s an extremely powerful movie. But even though the movie is very deep and complicated, there’s so much about Hushpuppy and her life that’s lovely and sweet and strong too.

I was also very impressed by the portrayal of Hushpuppy’s father Wink by Dwight Henry. Henry owns the bakery across the street from where the film crew set up an office. Like many of the actors in this film, he had no former acting experience. He worked nights at his bakery so he could keep his business going while filming during the day. He pitches the character perfectly in all his contradictions.

This was a five-star film on my five star scale. Compelling story, great acting, and representing the viewpoint and experiences of people who are ordinarily overlooked.

Also, a strong little girl facing down some REALLY big monsters.

Warning: C-Man wasn’t able to watch this movie because the slight rocking and swaying of the camera (done to communicate the water and the child’s perspective) made him physically ill. He’s pretty sensitive to motion sickness but if you are too, be careful.

Here’s the trailer in case you haven’t seen it yet.