"Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run."There are stories that tap into a deep, haunting place inside where we yearn to be a part of all that is right with the world. Beasts of the Southern Wild attempts to do this. I choose my words carefully here, because "attempts" is not the same as "accomplishes" - and yet every attempt is laudable.
In struggling to write down my thoughts, I realized I needed to write two reviews: One that captures a story that moves me; the other that reflects a worldview that unsettles me.
In this bittersweet film, we meet a Louisiana bayou community called "The Bathtub." The people celebrate often, laugh easily, and live off the land with no apparent concern or need for the finer things in life. They are a diverse group bound by a common cultural history and a shared love of self-reliance. Civilization? Cities? Government? No, thank you very much.
They have each other; they have the land. That's enough. They are finely tuned to to the exquisiteness of life: "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece... the whole universe will get busted."
Though they live in shacks built on stilts (to avoid floods), make boats out of old trucks, and live off the grid as much as possible, they are at peace. The best meals involve gator, crab, catfish caught by hand, and cold beer; the best days end with a community-wide party; the best friends are the ones who will never leave, even when the rains come down and the floods come up.
The heroine, six-year-old Hushpuppy, has been raised without a mother. Her father, Wink, is doing his best to toughen her up for a life he knows will be hard. He is a proud man, determined to "take care of his own." Though stern and at times angry, he seems to care for and take pride in her.
He talks about Hushpuppy's mother with fondness. Hushpuppy was conceived on the day her mother shot a gator, dressed it, and immediately fried it up for Wink. "Four minutes later, you popped into existence," says her father. Her mother is gone, so Hushpuppy keeps an eye on the sea, wondering if her mother will ever return. Meanwhile, she idolizes her father, soaking up all he has to teach her about how to survive in a harsh world.
When a major hurricane hits, most of the village evacuates. Wink, Hushpuppy, and a few others who rode out the storm wake up to a world underwater. At first it seems the world has ended - there is a subplot running through the film of the release of aurochs from melting glaciers (these are the beasts of the movie's title). Though it appears that the devastation is from a strong local hurricane, the aurochs rumble toward the Bathtub, embodying the fear of inevitable doom that Hushpuppy feels.
A nearby city offers proper food and medical attention for those who want it. They rest in the shelter for few days, but when the call of the bayou is too strong they leave, even though they are returning to ruins.
When they return, Hushpuppy finds out her father is dying. Wink forbids her to cry, so she doesn't. Instead, she runs away with some friends in search of her mother. When the woman she finds declines to help, Hushpuppy is not devastated. She realizes she can't run away from what she fears.
She has to "take care of her own" now - in this case, herself and her father, though his time is short. She literally faces the beast of doom head on, goes back to her father, and stays with him while he dies. "Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run."
She will be all alone, but she is strong. At one point in the movie she notes, "Sometimes you can break something so bad, that it can't get put back together." Sometimes, but not always. She may be bent, but she's not broken. When she buries him at sea in a fiery pyre borne on his old boat, she takes solace in the finely tuned plan of the universe: "I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right."
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a poignant story of a daughter's search for love and meaning in a world that threatens to overwhelm her. In the end she has her home, her community, and her quiet resolve to help her face the world.
In this bittersweet film, we meet a Louisiana bayou community called "The Bathtub." The people celebrate often and mightily, and most days end at the bar. They laugh easily and live off the land with no apparent concern or need for the finer things in life. Civilization? Cities? Government? No, thank you very much. Everyone else is out to get them, and the end of the world is fast approaching.
Though they are only a few miles away from a nice city, they live in porous shacks, make boats out of old truck beds, and live off the grid as much as possible. They are preppers, but without the canned food. It's not entirely clear why this group is so desperate to avoid civilization. They take great pride in not going past the levees to ask for any kind of help. Perhaps it's rugged self-reliance; perhaps it's paranoia. The movie does not make this clear. And so they live a life defined by poor education and health care, a lot of booze, a close connection with the land, and a life centered around people more than things. It's a mixed bag, to say the least.
The heroine, six-year-old Hushpuppy, has been raised without a mother. Her father, Wink, is an alcoholic who constantly says "I got it under control," when he obviously does not. He and his daughter live in separate shacks, because he's doing his best to toughen her up for the inevitable doomsday he is convinced is coming.
Wink seems to care for and take pride in her, but the spirits in the bottle he carries everywhere can't drown the demons of his heart. He is a proud man, determined to "take care of his own" - but I'm not sure he knows what that means. He does not show affection; he rages when he is angry; he drinks himself into a stupor even when she is around; he is adamant that they do not get involved with the city.
He talks about Hushpuppy's mother with fondness - which is a very different thing from affection. Perhaps that is why her mother left. Hushpuppy keeps an eye on the water, wondering if her mother will ever return. Meanwhile, she idolizes her father, though frankly there's not a lot there to put on a pedestal.
When a major hurricane hits, most of the village evacuates, but hung-over Wink, terrified Hushpuppy, and the passed-out denizens of the bar wake up to a world underwater. At first it seems the world has ended. Aurochs from melting glaciers (these are the beasts of the movie's title, though one's never sure if they are real or imagined). Though the devastation is apparently from a strong local hurricane, the aurochs rumble toward the Bathtub, embodying the fear of inevitable doom that Hushpuppy feels as her life collapses around her.
Wink blows up a levee to drain the water from his village rather than go somewhere safe. When even that doesn't help, local officials eventually force the rest of the community into a shelter where they can get proper food and medical attention. They break out and head back home, far more entranced by fading visions of a false utopia than a real world.
She cries - once - then buries him at sea in a fiery pyre made of his old boat. She will be all alone, but she is strong. Her father has made her in his hardened image. At one point in the movie she notes, "Sometimes you can break something so bad, that it can't get put back together." I hope she is not unknowingly referring to herself. If nothing changes, I fear that she may be.
Perhaps I can't get this movie out of my head because both reviews fit. That's an unusual accomplishment for a film, though I'm not sure it was purposeful. Family is poignantly present but deeply flawed; the community is loyal but they are not always healthy for each other; Hushpuppy is a survivor, though perhaps damaged beyond what she realizes.
I admired Hushpuppy's will power and inner strength, even while cringing as she became her father. That's hardly her fault. His inner beasts harmed his ability to be a loving father and good man. Hushpuppy has the strength to face the wild things around her; I wonder if (in this haunting, beautiful, fictional world) she can take her legacy where her father could not, and tame the beasts within.