Beasts of the Southern Wild
Sundance Film Festival Winner
If you are planning to go to this movie, this might contain spoilers. I will try not to mention anything specific and spoil it but I can promise nothing. This is not a critique of the film so if you were looking for that, it isn’t here unless you find it melded within the article.
I saw the movie 4 days ago. I am not sure what I was expecting but the movie and its images have stuck with me, and almost daily I have a flashback to a scene or a revelation about a piece of it and how it fits to my life. In an effort to not give so much away, I am going to discuss something about a scene or a theme because that is how the images come back to me so it seems the easiest way to account for how I have even come to write about the movie.
Let me say that the setting is what I might call severe poverty, and yet they had much, much of it junk – or, useful junk. I must admit, I do not own a blow torch so they did have things which I do not and in some ways the sentiment of the community for each other and how they cared for and watched out for each other probably gives them a much greater wealth than their material possessions. They were willing to fight for their homes and for each other sharing a common cause, a common sense of identity, and a common sense of values.
The movie is really based on the 6 year old Hushpuppy. I won’t quote the movie verbatim, because I can’t. If I claimed my memory was that good, I would be a big fibber. If it is in quotes then take it here that I mean the dialogue is as close to what I remember it to be and not exact. It may even be a paraphrase or the closest meaning that I took from what I thought I heard, instead of what was really said. At one point in the movie, Hushpuppies father tells her, “Look, just because you burnt your own house down….” If your mind just engaged there a bit, 6 year old Hushpuppy did indeed have her own trailer set up high on some sort of platform, buried in the bayou, or swamps, or whatever you would want to call it of Louisiana. I was intrigued by an interview from the Director of the movie and that is what prompted me to check the movie out. They were very meticulous in their selection of “actors” and I use that term loosely because most of the people they used in the making of the film aren’t actors at all but taken from the regional area where the story was filmed.
One scene, which makes me laugh, and there were a few of these…their “teacher” is explaining to the kids about global warming, and how the ice caps are melting. She is telling them how those ice caps have beasts from the old, great aurochs, who have been frozen in time in the ice. The aurochs used to eat the babies of humans. Which Hushpuppy later in her narrative surmises meant that if the aurochs were around today she wouldn’t even be a hushpuppy, she would just be food. In the teachers narrative though, she asks the kids if they thought their ancestors used to “sit around crying like a bunch of pussies?” Even now, I give an embarrassed laugh. There was nothing hidden from the children of this community. We worry about sheltering our children but the reality is when they are exposed to life on a daily basis being delicate with them is almost a disservice. The kids were enraptured by the tale of not only history but also of the current global happenings, or theories, as in global warming. In many ways, this line tells it all in regards to the fortitude of the community which Hushpuppy was being raised.
The aurochs take on meaning for the 6 year old as one, dare I say disaster, after another takes place the film uses the images of the aurochs breaking free of the ice caps, journeying south in the water flows and finally trekking across land until toward the end when they finally catch up to Hushpuppy. The aurochs came to represent the growing fear inside of her and how they were gaining on her, threatening to overcome her world. In a final confrontation, the great beasts come up over the rise as Hushpuppy is walking across a field with several of her young girl friends. To the roar of the thundering hooves, the girlfriends scream and begin running. Hushpuppy walks to the end of the clearing and then she turns and she looks at the beasts (which looked more like wild hogs to me), and they stop before her. She says to them, “You are my friends, kind of. But there are things here, family things, that I have to take care of now.” Each of the beasts sat down in the field as if paying homage and Hushpuppy walks away.
Maybe that doesn’t seem as profound to others as it does to me. If you have read anything about my articles or creative writings, I work with metaphor and philosophy a lot. The hidden message, for me within these images, was how many times our fears are born of things unknown and how they will pursue us until we come face to face with them. Many times, this reckoning, if you are honest with yourself will be partially acknowledging that the fear itself has served some purpose in our life. They are indeed friends, sort of. I find it fascinating, and incredulous, and yet somehow totally plausible that Hushpuppy knows this and admits it to her fears. There is a point where she is yelling at her father, “Do you think I am blind, that I can’t see?” He has been trying to hide his state of health from her, but she knew. And, I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that she would recognize her own fears as they crept up on her.
The movie had a lot of darkness. That is the nature of life. There is darkness and we have to find our way and create the light as we go. The teacher tells her students at one point that she is teaching them how to take care of each other and those that are “smaller, with more sweetness than they have.” I think that is a beautiful metaphor for referring to those around you who might not have been exposed yet to some of the harder lessons of life.
There are so many pieces of the movie that touched some part of my life, in odd and different ways. Their mode of transportation was the truck bed of an old Chevy truck that had been motorized so serve as a boat. That makes me laugh, but my gaze strays quietly over to my brother and I know he would do that. He could do that. He could and would make a boat out of a truck bed if he needed to, he is that type of creative resourceful. And, I hesitated to describe the degree of poverty they were living in because I look at my home of 5 years and the degree of rehabilitation and clutter and just plain old crap that has no purpose, at least not yet. And I have to ask myself, how am I any damn different than Hushpuppy? She has her community and their common values. What do I have? I guess I have a certain amount of freedom. Freedom sounds cheap in comparison to me at the moment.
Last scene, I promise. One of the men is showing Hushpuppy to open a crab with a knife pressed into the belly of its shell. Her father gets up angry, grabs the knife and tosses it aside, then grabs the crab and physically breaks the shell in his two hands and drinks the inside. Then he slams another crab in front of Hushpuppy and shouts, “Beast it!” The entire gathering is chanting, “Beast it! Beast it!”, as Hushpuppy picks up her crab and struggles to pop the shell. It is a suspenseful moment and I am rooting for her even though I am confused on why he is making her do this. When she wins, the shell breaks and she drinks from it, she stands on her chair and gives a primal scream, raising her arms into the air in a moment of triumph. They rally around her screaming their support.
It could have been their final scene and it would have left possibly the feel from the entire film. It wasn’t though and thinking back on it, I find myself cheering for her too, the sense of exhilaration. I feel that. And under it, I feel something else. I feel sad and disappointed. Not for the movie, or for Hushpuppy. The joy I feel for both of those is real. The sadness and disappointment rise up in me because the moment shows me something lacking in myself. It shows me a piece of myself that has gone missing. Call it passion, or excitement, or connection. Call it the power of belief, or the power of belonging. Call it anything you want but at its base, fundamentally, it is a loss of self. It is perhaps twisted, but in the culmination of the triumph and show of strength there remains an understanding that neither of these things would exist, if there were not a reason they will be needed as future resources.
The movie made me feel and made me think. I want to both hate and love it for the same reasons. Is it worth seeing? If you live a superficial world that doesn’t give thought to all the subtleties of life, then it is probably not the movie for you. If you want to see a face of yourself that perhaps you didn’t know existed, then you might find this of interest. If I were to rank this on a scale of 1-5 stars…1 being low, 5 high…then I probably left the theater with a 3.5 stars in mind. Over the last few days, the seed has germinated, and there are wild flowers growing from it. I am currently leaning to around a 5.25 stars.