The Oscars are tonight! I could opine about my picks, but the truth is that I’m in grad school and haven’t been able to see most of the nominated films. So I’ll tell you about one I watched this very afternoon.
Beasts of the Southern Wild was released in June to spectacular acclaim, but I never got around to it. I didn’t get around to it until today, in fact, in anticipation of tonight’s ballroom gown gala. Being that it was released so many moons ago, I’d forgotten most of the press about it that I read when I sat down to watch it. The most recent bit of writing I’ve read about it was a review by a friend of mine in which he focuses on the film’s sociological context and how very problematic it is. For better or worse, his was the narrative in my head as I watched the film.
For those of you who live under rocks – or just don’t get to the movies that much – Beasts is set in the Bathtub, a Louisiana bayou community under siege from first, an oncoming storm (in an intentional Katrina parallel), and second, the mainlanders who troop in after the storm to evacuate whoever stayed. Our hero, Hushpuppy, is a five-year-old girl living with her father, Wink, whose parenting is spotty to say the least. Hushpuppy has her own “house,” a shack connected to her father’s shack by a rope with bells tied to either end, and Wink seems to have a habit of wandering off for days at a time and leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself. He is passionate about the Bathtub and its residents, many of whom are determined to stay. The film follows their efforts to remain in the Bathtub despite the odds, with Wink and, later, Hushpuppy leading the troops.
From minute one, the film feels exploitative, and while that feeling eases up as the narrative gains steam it never goes away entirely. As a viewer, I think I’m supposed to be on the Bathtub residents’ side, but it’s a challenge when they’re doing things like putting their crying babies into crawl races. It’s hard not to feel like I’m watching poverty porn that only further marginalizes its subjects, as opposed to making them in some way legible. But if one can power through that uncomfortableness, there awaits … more uncomfortableness, if you’re even remotely sociologically savvy. Because here’s the thing, right – on the pure level of Wink and Hushpuppy, it becomes abundantly clear that Wink loves his daughter. It is also abundantly clear that Wink cannot parent with anything approaching competence. He leaves Hushpuppy alone for days on end, during which she feeds herself by cooking up a pot of what looks like condensed milk and dog food. He has her set up in her very own shack, which she proceeds to burn down because she is five years old. He’s mostly drunk, and also, he’s dying of a chronic illness about which he tells Hushpuppy nothing. He is terrible. But Hushpuppy adores him, and his love for her comes through despite his utter inability to be an adult for more than five consecutive minutes.
So what do you do? When the cops come from the mainland to evacuate the residents of the Bathtub, you’re on the residents’ side; the cops are aggressive and utterly without compassion. When you see the way the residents are treated in the shelter – the scene of Hushpuppy, her afro combed into pigtails, a starched collar around her throat and a look of utter obstinance on her face while her white kindergarten teacher screams at her, will be with me for awhile – you’re on their side. But the reality of their life is stark. And it’s hard not to feel that these are not people who should be responsible for children. (The majority of folks who survived the storm and the flood are, like Wink, drunk most of the time. He finds his friend Walrus when Walrus opens his door the morning after the storm and steps into water deeper than his head, bottle in hand.)
Beasts of the Southern Wild asks some really important questions about how we as a society arrive at norms around parenting and education. It provocatively asks how we should handle people who opt out of modernity, and what responsibilities we have towards their children. As a social worker in training, I couldn’t help brainstorming what effective and culturally sensitive social services would look like for the residents of the Bathtub. Of course, my brainstorming skipped the whole step where you get the residents to accept that they need them. Do they? As regards their children, I want to say yes. But really, I’m not sure.
I should probably talk about Beasts as a film, but I gotta say, it’s not that interesting. There are some lovely moments, and Wallis is both very cute and on her game, but I couldn’t really engage with the thematic material with so many unresolved questions about the setting biting my heels. Maybe that’s on me. Maybe that’s on director Benh Zeitlin. Maybe the answer is that the film doesn’t try to justify or explain the Bathtub’s people, it simply shows them to you and challenges you to go with them anyway. That is an interesting choice. It is one that works better when kids aren’t eating dog food.