Beasts of the Southern Wild: My Thoughts

Recently, Lunanola and I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild which, as most of you know, is a locally produced film with local actors. This is not so much a review of the film as just an assortment of my thoughts during the movie and in the days following. Indeed, Beasts is a grand over-the-top gothic fairy tale as told by a child called Hushpuppy whose imagination runs wild with the stories told to her by her alcoholic father, Wink. They live on a mythical swath of land off the Louisiana coast called The Bathtub by its inhabitants, a small community of people living on the edge of civilization.

Beasts reminds me of poetry in that the poet tells her story in such a personal way that the reader may never grasp its deepest meaning. The reader reads the poem, or story, through the lens of their own life experiences, often completely missing the poet’s intent. And that’s ok – it doesn’t negate the meaning of the work but enhances it by expanding and challenging the reader. The same can be said of this film and how I feel about it. I didn’t read any reviews before seeing the film because I didn’t want any other opinions influencing, even subconsciously, what I was going to see on the screen.

Having said that, I found myself wincing through much of the film; reacting to the squalor of Hushpuppy’s existence, the harshness and obvious mental illness of her father and the rampant alcoholism of most of The Bathtub residents we met. I didn’t see this isolated community largely as a celebration of a self-sustaining culture as much as the smaller stories of a few delusional souls, who’ve long since forgotten the real meaning of community, compassion and care, barely hanging on by their fingernails to a dysfunctional life. There was more about Beasts that bothered me than delighted or awed me and maybe that’s the film makers intention. In any case, it gives the viewer much to ponder.

I felt sad for Hushpuppy and the absence of a positive adult figure in her life except for an apparently cursory relationship with Little Jo (played by Pamela Harper), the resident Shaman, who taught the local kids about medicinal herbs, the flora and animal life in The Bathtub and the importance of being good stewards of the land and water. (Thank you for portraying her as a real three-dimensional healer instead of the stereotypical Voodoo queen!) She was the only positive, grounded character in the film and the only adult who attempted to prepare the kids for a real life instead of encouraging a life based on fantasy.

The interaction of people with each other, and the cause and effect of that interaction, has always fascinated me. I suppose that’s why I focused so much more on this aspect of the movie, while I was actually watching it, over the surrealism and symbolism the film was obviously pushing. In retrospect, though, the symbolism and subsequent cautionary tale is a vital part of what makes this movie unique. For instance, although I found the glacier avalanches jarring and somewhat disruptive I can acknowledge the part they played in the tale and beauty of the cinematography.

Generally, I thought the acting by all of the actors to be just about perfect. There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around this film and Quvenzhane’ Wallice, who plays Hushpuppy, and it appears she’s the darling of the Indie film set this year. There’s no disputing the child has a beautiful and expressive face but I always felt like someone was just out of view saying, “Now look fierce; now cry; now act crazy”. For me, Dwight Henry, who played the dad, was pretty incredible. I felt like he WAS the person he portrayed with all the nuances and warts of his character’s personality played completely naturally and believably. Children are so close and open to their emotions that I think most of them can act simply by following directions. But adults have to peel away layers of their own experiences and feelings to find the place where a character can come out. For this reason, I think Dwight was the better actor in this film and it’s a shame his achievement is being overshadowed when it should be equally acclaimed.

The cinematography was magical and pleasured us with torridly beautiful landscapes and seascapes. The manipulation of ordinary pigs into the hulking, mythical aurochs was nothing short of genius.

This movie had parts that I loved (Miss Jo with the kids) and parts that I hated (mamma shooting a gator while naked except for huge white diaper-like panties – WTF?). It made me laugh (the joyous fireworks scene) and cry (the death scene). In the end, I still can’t say if I “liked” it or not; I can only say it was a wild and interesting ride.

However, the most amazing aspect of Beasts is that it was made at all on the hand-to-mouth budget that produced it. The creativity of the film makers and the ingenuity required to make it is impressive and showcases the best this city has to offer artistically. That makes me proud to be a New Orleanian and, ultimately, happy I watched the film.

(And I’m still processing it.)

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12 thoughts on “Beasts of the Southern Wild: My Thoughts

  1. I personally loved this movie..the hidden messages (which I pondered over for days after seeing) showed the beauty if life even amid the darkness ..Yes, the path to getting this film made is what makes this movie even more likable..nothing short of amazing. Enjoyed your review!!

  2. I enjoyed very much reading your account of the movie and I appreciate your effort not to be a critic but to relate the movie to your own place in life.
    The only aspect which came as a disappointment was when you wrote,
    “There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around this film and Quvenzhane’ Wallice, who plays Hushpuppy, and it appears she’s the darling of the Indie film set this year. There’s no disputing the child has a beautiful and expressive face but I always felt like someone was just out of view saying, “Now look fierce; now cry; now act crazy”.
    Suddenly your inner mean girl showed up her ugly face and ruined an otherwise interesting piece of writing.

    • Alberto, I doubt there is any actor alive or dead, who’s role does not benefit from the director. That is why directors do what they do and why every movie has one – directors talk and coach their performers and tell them “look fierce, now cry, now act crazy”.

      Charlotte in pointing out the obvious is hardly the mean girl here…

  3. Hi, I’m a liberal who lives in San Francisco, and, after seeing “Beasts of the Southern Wild” I wanted to visit Louisiana.

    One of the most interesting aspects of the film was how government intervention was portrayed. Government social workers and aide workers were seen as the enemy by the people because they were taking them away from the only life they knew. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m still a bleeding-heart liberal who is a firm believer in mixed economies and public-private partnerships, but after seeing “Beasts,” I lean slightly more libertarian.

    Also, I never felt sad for Hushpuppy, except for the times she was missing her mother. And, in spite of the alcoholism and the extreme poverty, here was a group of people who really cared about one another. If someone could not take care of himself or herself, members of the community would step up to the plate.

    Very different from my life in my beloved, but atomized San Francisco.

    Perhaps real life in Louisiana is different?

  4. Hi Cynthia – To add to your comment, and by no means am I speaking for the author of this post, but having grown up in Louisiana, there seem to be parallels to what you describe is depicted in the movie with the culture here. The extended family is alive and well here, and that spills over to friends and neighbors as well. I remember growing up I had a dozen or so “aunts” who were not related by blood but were friends of my mothers: friends that would do anything for another friend’s family & children, especially when the chips were down. Insular lifestyles are not the norm here, and it seems like the movie was able to tap into that successfully.

  5. So glad to find your blog. Watched Beasts of the Southern Wild last night — YES, acting’s amazing, cinematography’s wonderful, and climate change & other apocalyptic metaphors are timely & powerful — but what stood out most for me was the film’s overwhelming, relentless, oppressive darkness: abuse, neglect, alcoholism, mental illness, squalor, ignorance. Are these individuals “resilient,” as some reviewers suggest, or “barely hanging on by their fingernails to a dysfunctional life”, as you write? I’m with you. There is much to admire in the film from artistic / technical standpoints, but it is troubling to me that so few reviewers directly address the “elephant in the living room” that is the horror of these characters’ lives — particularly the children’s — and in so (not) doing, run the risk of glamorizing or at least “normalizing” conditions & behavior that should never, ever be considered acceptable. Ignorance is NOT bliss. To pretend that it is is fantasy of the highest, or make that lowest, order.

    • I think saying they are resilient is true as it’s true of most people who live in poverty. They don’t have a choice; to make a life in poverty forces you to change with your daily circumstances. I don’t particularly like when poverty is viewed as romantic as I think this film does a little too much. It’s not romantic. It’s hard living and hard to escape and there’s way too much substance abuse as a result. I don’t like films that glorify addiction, either.

      Thanks for your comments, Liz, and I hope you’ll be back.

      • Agreed! Poverty does demand resilience, and is the root of much that’s wrong in the world — both for / among humans, and in terms of humans’ relationship with other species & the land. My predominant reaction to the film grew out of my sensitivity to issues around child abuse & neglect & other dysfunctions. I wish it would be more a part of the public conversation about Beasts, but have heard very little . . .

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