If you’re planning to go see Beasts of the Southern Wild  this weekend I can tell you it is worth it. The things you’ve probably heard already are true: This is a lush, heart-wrenching fable about a little girl and her daddy, in a rural Louisiana enclave barely clinging to the high side of environmental apocalypse. The two main players, newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, are perfect and perfectly-directed, and everybody looks and acts like the never-left-home hard-luck cases they are.
Some more comments are below; I’ve inserted a cut for those who (like me) prefer to go into movies knowing as little as possible.
1. “World to End Tomorrow: Women, Minorities Affected the Most.” The movie gets at the truth behind that old New York Times parody headline. Beasts says environmental apocalypse threatens all of us, but the poorest will get it first and they’ll get it hard. It isn’t in any way a preachy movie–either about this part, or the one I’ll talk about next–and its characters would respond to any talk of “environmental justice” with mistrust and another gulp of moonshine, but the intersection of environmental and economic helplessness is actually one of the basic elements of the movie, an inextricable part of its imaginative framework.
Movies like this often garner double-edged praise for telling a “universal” story of death and (possibly–see below) coming of age, not a “minority” story of inequality. But the universal is expressed in the particular. Hushpuppy and her daddy couldn’t be white, or middle-class, but people who are those things are invited to identify with them and see their worldview as normative. This btw strikes me as a pretty Christian approach to life.
2. Doctors and policemen
The movie also has a really visceral loathing for the system, the world of rational liberalism: hospitals and social workers. Beasts taps into all those anti-utilitarian loves which Jonathan Haidt says liberals just don’t understand: the sacredness of home and the preference for dying according to the old ways rather than living by the rules of outsiders. The hospital/refugee center scenes are basically horror footage, not because the people are suffering but because they’re suffering on someone else’s terms.
3. Drunk on the lawn in a nuclear dawn…
We all have our obsessions, and I was really struck by how well the constant drinking and drunkenness played into the movie’s themes (and its greatest weakness, see below). The movie is really deeply embedded in Hushpuppy’s worldview, which allows it to accept (and sometimes romanticize) the poverty, violence, and alcoholic haze the adults in her world inhabit.
Beer and liquor are used pretty consistently in the movie to do two things: create or reinforce community, and postpone reckoning. Drinking fuels exhilaration, provokes rueful laughter and camaraderie, serves as explanation and excuse. The adults seem to live in that constant “Sunday morning never comes” mindset, one more for the road, let’s stay here for a while. It’s totally relatable (to me, anyway) and of course its unsustainability plays into the environmental and gone-with-the-wind themes. Their lives are held in suspense. (There’s a reason one recent book about addiction was called How to Stop Time.) The plot of the movie is partly one long other-shoe-dropping: “For the ones we didn’t find,” Hushpuppy reflects as she and her father maneuver their improvised boat through the wreckage of their drowned town looking for survivors, “the end of the world had already come.”
4. Wild pigs of existentialism
To me the movie’s ending was unsatisfying, unfinished, maybe even forced and syrupy–but I can see why it ended the way it did. Hushpuppy’s daddy dies, and the movie ends with his funeral. This is a weirdly nonspecific funeral in which songs are sung but we can’t hear them, and flags are carried but we can’t see what’s written on them. It’s a pretty blatant, defiant assertion that the man’s community itself is all that matters: No religion, no “things loved in common” or specific culture, just the raw fact of humans loving humans and sticking by them no matter what.
Hushpuppy seems to need some kind of acknowledgment that she is seen and understood: She asserts that scientists from the future will find the records of her life and her story.
Throughout the movie she’s been an immensely real, relatable little kid. She blames herself for the storm and her father’s illness: “I’ve broken everything,” she says. She’s the center of her own universe in that way children have, their sense of power which brings as much guilt as pleasure. In the end, one reason I think she doesn’t grow up within this movie is that her triumph over death occurs through a mental act of will in which she simply asserts her power over her inner fears and the outer losses and cruelties of her world. She transforms that childhood narcissism into a source of inner peace, and tells herself a story in which she conquers misery.
I think there were times in my own (vastly overprivileged) childhood in which I responded to loss or pain the same way. And there were times when I felt like it had worked: The story I had told myself was real and it was sufficient.
But this was only a short-term solution. In the long run the jury-rigged sense of self was not enough. My inner assertions of power separated me from those around me, those I loved. I began to suspect that adulthood was about acceptance and submission rather than self-assertion and power. I don’t think Hushpuppy gets there, and while I think the movie gave us something big and real (upon reflection I think the sense of forced uplift I got from the swelling music and pushy voice-over actually does reflect how a child thinks and responds to tragedy), it would have been tougher and more sublime if it had pushed her harder.