If you’re reading this, chances are your childlike innocence has been taken, maybe by the loss of a loved one, through your own failures, or even by a drunk uncle in a windowless shack. Point being, you’re not a child anymore, no matter how many times you shit your pants or throw up from eating too much ice cream. You just can’t get those days back. They’re gone forever. What Beasts of the Southern Wild does is stick a knife through your heart, twist it around a bit, and point and laugh at your dead childhood.
It’s a really great movie.
And here is the worst and most brilliant part, the story is told through the eyes of a little girl named Hushpuppy. She recants all the innate truths we’ve known since we could touch a frog, feel the bite of a mosquito, or cuddle up next to a cat. Childish sensations and the magnanimous cosmic forces that seem to govern and drive us as children are rekindled and made very tangible, painfully tangible. This movie has a certain paradoxical duality to it: It makes you actually hate being inside a theater.
This is the first movie that ever made me look around my surroundings, noticing the drab curtains, the stale smell, the synthetic upholstery on the seats. It’s like this movie was saying, “Stop going to the movies! Go outside and swim in a ditch!” That’s counter productive! Imagine Joe Camel telling people that smoking makes you look dorkier than Newt Gingrich on roller blades.
Plenty movies have preyed on the cuteness of children, the mentally handicapped, and talking animals to elicit some sort emotional catharsis, some philosophical understanding of the world, but none have come close to what this movie does. Through Hushpuppy’s eyes, her extreme poverty is unrealized, her surroundings are glorified, her way of life is something she takes pride in, and her role models’ flaws go un-noticed. But the audiences sees what Hushpuppy can’t, we realize at this rate she’ll grow up to be a drug addict, criminal, or worse, a libertarian.
America has failed her community, ruined her natural habitat, and put her future of growing up to be a well adjusted adult in danger. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing though, as the rest of us well adjusted adults have forgotten that you can pick up a baby chicken and hold its breast up to your ear and listen to its heartbeat. Hushpuppy remains ignorantly blessed by not making the unnecessary connections we adults make when it comes to chicken: salmonella, marriage inequality, and Marty McFly.
This movie makes no mention of America, but if you pay attention you’ll see Louisiana plates on the vehicles. You’ll see our swamps, our bayous, our marshes, our food, our homes. This movie was shot right around the corner from me (but I’ll try and keep this review from being a cajun-pride circle jerk). This movie touches on a piece of America that America forgot, a piece of America that has its own dialect, cuisine, and customs, a piece of America that is rapidly deteriorating due to manmade coastal erosion and cultural homogenization expedited by corporate chains and fast innernet speeds.
A few years ago, somebody asked if I wanted to be an extra in some movie a Tulane film student was shooting down the bayou. I had better things to do than waste my time with a bunch of hipsters trying to find reverse on an outboard motor. I made the wrong decision, just like that time I tried to fight a bunch of wasps with a weed-eater. Anyway, let me tell you about the movie already. Hushpuppy is a little girl, and she was born in a place called The Bathtub. The Bathtub is outside of levee protection, and susceptible to flooding, hurricanes, and saltwater intrusion, just like many other communities down here. She lives with her father, who is clearly an alcoholic, but Hush has no idea. It’s like that time I thought my friend Brandon was stupid, turns out he was actually retarded. Hushpuppy’s dad is a lost soul, sometimes kind, sometimes cruel, and most of the time irresponsible, but he loves her in the only ways a man like himself can love: in random, wild increments.
The other members of the community aren’t much better or worse. Hush’s eyes cast a utopist haze over everything. While watching the film, the adult in us can see through the haze, visualize the train coming down the tracks, the impending disaster that awaits this gentle creature, but we’re so caught up in the splendor and wonder of her childhood that we’re torn between joy and despair. I’ve haven’t had my heart pushed and pulled through a movie like this since Predator 2.
The maternal absence in Hushpuppy’s life leaves a void. Hush is constantly yearning for her mother, or even the idea of having a mother. She takes an old basketball jersey that her mother once wore and talks to it as if she is still there inside the jersey. Her dad tells her something to the effect of, “Your momma loved you so much, when she looked at you, her heart would fill up with so much love that she was scared it would explode. That’s why she had to leave.” Only a child would buy such nonsense, but only a monster would expose it as nonsense. To me, this was the essence of the film: There is a reality we forge as children and a reality that exists as adults, and we slowly fade into the latter with every passing breath, but some of that magic from childhood still lingers, enough of it to make us hope that it isn’t magic at all, but part of some other universe, part of something so strong and real that we can’t explain or quantify it. The adventure starts after the passing of a hurricane, possibly Katrina or Gustav. Water is everywhere, destroying their delicate ecosystem.
There is a remedy for this plan: blow the levee. Who holds the moral high ground in such a position? Should the dry people suffer a flood just to ease the suffering of a few wildlings who decided to live south of the wall, or should the people who are already treated like second class human beings be entitled to relieve their sufferings by destroying a manmade structure that was erected with the foreknowledge that it would contribute to the death of their communities?
These are real life issues that we face down here, but the movie isn’t really heavy handed or preachy. It tells a story; you take from the story what you will. The people who live on the dry side of the wall come to take Hushpuppy and the residents of The Bathtub to a shelter. I can’t even begin to hash out all the philosophical problems with this, especially since I worked the shelters after Katrina. Especially since I would never, ever evacuate my community no matter what.
There are enough half-assed grammatically bad sentences to fill up the archives of Ruthless Reviews so much that Plaxico Gingrich would have to like, rent more internets or something.
So I’ll just save my musings on shelters and hurricanes and disenfranchisement and global warming and corporate interests for men more articulate and well informed than myself. I’m here to tell you about how a movie made me feel. So as expected, the falcon can no longer hear the falconer, that beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born. The gyre widens and all that poetic shit. Hushpuppy breaks out of shelter jail in the midst of chaos and three of her cutest friends head out on a quest into the great beyond, looking for answers to questions they can’t even comprehend.
They end up in a catfish shack/strip club/brothel located on the water. I can’t tell if it’s some kind of Cajun Valhalla or just our version of the Double Deuce, sans Patrick Swayze. Hushpuppy meets her mother…or a version of her. It’s hard to explain. All the young girls slow dance with prostitutes in one of the most touching scenes I’ve ever witnessed. It made my eyes well up a little bit, not like a woman crying about burning a casserole or whatever, but more like when you get hit in the nose with a basketball. My interpretation is that the young girls are hypnotized by their older reflections, and those older reflections are finding some pained joy in rediscovering their innocence, all for the duration of one sad song. They dance toe to toe, ebbing and flowing like the tide, melting into one. My grandfather had a camp on the outskirts of the marshes of Plaquemine’s parish, and sometimes as a child, we would take that long boat ride and fish, eat, and sleep out there. We were the only people around for miles. During the night, I’d stare out into the distance, over the Gulf of Mexico, and I’d see the glittering lights of dozens of oil rigs sparkling over that panoramic dreamscape.
It all seemed so majestic. As a child, I couldn’t think of anything more picturesque, grander, or beautiful than those lights over the horizon. As an adult, the rigs are an eyesore, a reminder of the companies that turned our marshes into Swiss cheese, sped up coastal erosion, and polluted our waterways, but we needed to, for like jobs and progress or something like that. I get it. I really do. But sometimes, and mostly when drunk and standing on the beach, I’ll look out over the water and see those shimmering lights and find them beautiful again.
Somehow, this movie is about all of that.