Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those movies you always mean to see one day but just never get around to it.  Nominated for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best actress (setting the record for youngest actress to ever be nominated), it won dozens of other awards from film organizations around the world.  It doesn't have huge action sequences, there's little in the way of CGI (aside from a few notable exceptions), and the cast aren't household names, but you always figured "hey, if I saw it on TV, I might stop and watch it."

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie everybody should see, if just because I've found myself thinking about it regularly since viewing it three days ago.  I find myself trying to talk to myself about metaphors involving giant beasts, and where poverty ends and self-sufficiency begins.  Where does pride screech to a halt and madness take over?  How can there be people who look just like people I see every day who speak a language I (almost) completely understand, but their ideas about how the world works are so foreign to my own despite the fact that we live in the same country?

All this coming from a movie about a small girl, her father, and a huge storm.

Taking place "around now," we follow Hushpuppy and her father Wink as they manage to survive in an area called "The Bathtub," located past the levees in southern Louisiana.  Cut off from the rest of the world (by choice, really), they and the rest of the residents are happy, care-free, and based on the number of festivals and how much booze I saw consumed, perpetually drunk.  Where they get the booze from is never discussed.

Hushpuppy has a very childlike outlook of the world (appropriate, really), and feels things are all connected and that everything is supposed to work a certain way.  When one thing breaks, it can break everything.  Her father disappears for a short time, and when he returns he's wearing a hospital gown and bracelet.  During an argument, she strikes her father's chest, and he falls down, unable to get back up again.  This comes before a huge storm sweeps across the Bathtub, flooding everything and bringing a possible end to the culture of the area, both socially and in the variety of living creatures.

Plus, giant furry beasts named "aurochs" are marching across the landscape, freed from their prison in the arctic by rising temperatures.  Hushpuppy hears a story about them early in the movie, where they're described as terrible creatures who would steal babies from "cave people" and eat them.  Their destination seems to be the Bathtub.

Now, before you think this is some wacky science fiction or fantasy movie, it's really not.  There's minimal "otherworldly" presence in the film, with most of the drama coming from watching Hushpuppy attempt to understand the world around her and how drastically it's changed.  She has an idea that everything that's happened is her fault, but she doesn't know how to fix it.  She also firmly believes that her mother is out there somewhere, waiting for Hushpuppy to one day find her.

There are lots of soft, personal moments in the movie.  Wink's description of how Hushpuppy "came to be" is a cute and endearing story, and many of Wink's conversations with his daughter show just how hard he's trying but how confused and frustrated (and probably unfit) he is to be trying to raise this girl on his own.  The rest of the supporting cast are all unique characters in their own right, and you never find yourself confusing one for another.

As I said above, I found myself constantly asking myself some pretty big questions as I watched the movie, and the questions lingered with me well after I finished viewing.  There's an opportunity where government officials show up to forcibly evacuate the inhabitants of The Bathtub, and the citizens put up a fight despite the fact that their homes can't really sustain them any more.  I found myself wondering what would make a person who is so destitute that they might not even realize what being destitute meant not only try to fight to save what is essentially nothing, but later return to it when given the first opportunity.

Quvenzhane Wallis is a tiny little acting powerhouse as Hushpuppy, and not for an instant do you get the idea that "oh, this is a child actor acting."  She embodies Hushpuppy, and every movement her tiny body makes screams "this is who I am."  Not bad for the girl who later plays Annie in the film of the same name.  Dwight Henry is also good as Wink, but when you read his story about how he isn't even an actor, but just a local baker who tried out for the role (and doesn't WANT to be an actor any more, really), you really appreciate his portrayal in the film more.

If I had to describe the film in one word, I'd say "real."  Nothing feels forced or fake.  These are people who are simply separate from the rest of the world, and since they're really outside the rules and expectations of the rest of us, they have their own sense of what to do.  It isn't preached, it isn't debated, it's just done, and you understand (for the most part) why they do it.

There's obvious comparisons to Hurricane Katrina here (a large storm wiping out homes in Louisiana?), but it's also a well-crafted coming of age story.  Hushpuppy finds herself less and less able to rely on the adults around her, and she needs to come to terms with the idea she'll be even more self-reliant than she already is very, very soon.  When the aurochs, which I suspect represent childhood fears about the outside world, show up and Hushpuppy faces them, it's a pretty powerful scene.

I know, I know, this is a movie you're meaning to see.  Y'know, some day.  When it shows up on your Netflix queue or something.  But come on, people.  Watch it.  There's a powerful message in there, and I think it's a different message to everybody who sees it.

No comments: