My four year old is the worst storyteller. He includes details that are superfluous and leaves out details that are necessary to understand the conclusion of his story. At the same time, there is something marvelous about learning the details he notices and those he doesn’t. I love seeing how his embellishments seamlessly become a part of the story. It is this flawed but charming way kids tell stories that is at the center of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. It sounds cute doesn’t it?
In fact, it is disturbing. The camera wanders past squalor that our protagonist, a six-year old, African-American girl called Hush Puppy, takes for granted. More than just narrating the film, Hush Puppy is the story teller. Despite the horror with which the audience sees this civilization, we (especially as parents) are reminded by the flawed, patchy way the Hush Puppy tells the story; of the way our own kids would tell it. Just like when my son tells a story, I started to lose track of what actually happened and what didn’t – what is a shiny detail and what is part of the plot.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is set on an island south of Louisiana known to its inhabitants as “the Bathtub.” With no stores, no school, and no post office, the residents of the Bathtub are focused on survival. Their cherished way of life looks primitive, but they are close to nature in a long forgotten mystical way. Shortly after our introduction to the community, the residents are preparing for an epic storm. Actually, prepare might not be the right term. Hush Puppy’s father, Wink, “prepares” by instructing Hush Puppy sit in a flimsy suitcase, while he gets drunk, curses out the storm and then shoot a gun at it. Despite his efforts, the storm is devastating. All but a few houses are underwater. The water doesn’t recede and the salt water starts to kill everything on the island. There is an ‘us vs. them’ moment where the remaining community has to confront the levee that keeps the Bathtub under water and protects their civilization from interference from the rest of the world. After they take action, it is impossible for the outside world to ignore them anymore. It is the turning point of the movie. As the residents are confronted with modern values that the audience takes for granted, the Bathtub civilization starts to make sense.
The story is told on two levels; and this is really where the film is brilliant. There is a tension throughout between the objective circumstances that are a part of the story and scattershot narrative of Hush Puppy. At the adult level, it is difficult not to judge. Wink (Hush Puppy’s father) who initially seems like an almost inhumane parent starts to come into focus. Like all of us, there was a conscious reason behind his disturbing ‘Boy-Named-Sue’ style of parenting
The remoteness, the poverty, the erratic relationships are all made real and terrifying by the outstanding performances of first time actors Quvenzhané Wallis (Hush Puppy) and Dwight Henry (Wink). Wallis holds the movie together, delivering a visceral performance that makes your hear break for her as if you were her own mother and father. Wallis is the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Oscar (see interview here). Beasts of the Southern Wild has three additional Oscar Nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. It is also a favorite of First Lady, Michelle Obama as reported by the Washington Post.
Would I recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild? That’s complicated. With it showing only at the AngelikaTheaters in Plano and Dallas, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to get to. And it isn’t really an easy movie to watch, and it doesn’t get easier towards the end.
As a parent, I found the film to be humbling. Hush Puppy responds so strongly to her father on his level, embracing values and lessons Wink is trying to teach her. At the same time, she wears her emotions and her vulnerability on her sleeve as only a child can. In the end, there is something universally incorruptible and innocent about the way a child perceives the world, even a world that is so much harder than the one any of us knows.
With big wins already in Cannes and at Sundance, you can count on Beasts of the Southern Wild to be a favorite at the Oscars, and maybe even around the water cooler. If you chose to use one of your all too precious date-nights to see Beasts (I feel your pain), you might pad baby sitting budget a bit so you can go out for a drink afterwards. This is the kind of film that you are going to want to talk about. And it is the kind of film that makes you sneak into your son’s room when you get home and give him a little kiss on the forehead.
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