Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

5-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) eke out a meager but seemingly happy existence in the Bathtub, a sort of "based on a real location" version of the wilds of the Louisiana bayou which exists on the other side of one of the levees that protects the population centers further north.  When the big storm hits and others flee the danger of the Bathtub for more solid ground, Hushpuppy and Wink (along with some of their neighbors) choose to ride out the storm at their homes, come what may.  The storm brings complications which threaten their community, and Hushpuppy has to find a way to survive both the encroaching influence of the authorities, as well as Wink's failing health.

Katrina was a seminal event for New Orleans, and for America at large, but the low-lying parts of Louisiana are constantly under threat, both from storms (smaller storms than Katrina can do quite a bit of damage) and from the slow rising of the level of the sea.  Beasts of the Southern Wild plays directly into our post-Katrina understanding of this part of the world, but the status quo of the Louisiana bayou is much more tenuous than perhaps most people realize.  There is something to be said for the maintenance of that status quo, and there is something to be said about the way Katrina affected the lives of the people even further down the totem pole of American society than the forgotten residents of the Ninth Ward, people like Hushpuppy and Wink who exist on the very fringes of society itself.  The problem with Beasts is just how little it establishes why that status quo is worth saving, and why anyone should look on the life that Hushpuppy is being raised in as anything other than borderline child abuse.  And I use that "borderline" very hesitantly, not only because Wink is not above physical abuse, but because the life Wink has chosen to give Hushpuppy on the bayou is one that is constantly on the edge of even mere subsistence - there is a scene in the film where she nonchalantly cooks up a pot of pet food to eat.  Hushpuppy goes to a version of school along with a handful of other children living in the same area, but her teacher seems more interested in apocalyptic tales of Biblical-level destruction than in teaching them the basics of learned society.  These kids are basically a lost cause for true societal integration before they've even had the chance to make that choice for themselves, and while I find that idea deeply troubling, the film very clearly takes for granted the notion that the threatened existence of these people is something to be treasured.

Wallis gives a surprisingly subtle performance as Hushpuppy, although the movie mostly asks her to be spunky and fiesty - she was nominated for an Oscar, which seems a little gimmicky, but her performance certainly works within the context of the film.  Henry's performance as Wink is a significantly bigger problem - he was famously cast as a non-actor, and while he's not a complete embarrassment by any stretch, he is constantly putting the needle in the red where a defter, subtler touch is called for.

Director Benh Zeitlin unquestionably has an eye for bringing out some of the beauty of this part of the world, although he has a predilection for shaky-cam shots that gets a little tedious after a while.  I don't doubt his sincerity about wanting to tell a story about the forgotten denizens of a forgotten place, but that sincerity excuses too many terrible choices being made by the film's characters, particularly Wink.  I can understand why some people have fallen in love with this film, as its moments of triumph and catharsis are beautifully staged and shot.  But they betray a hollowness at its core that I could never get past.  Wink and his neighbors may choose to live in a meager libertarian paradise, but that doesn't mean I have to condone the choice.  D+

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