This is republished from September 25, 2012. I just hate this god damned movie so goddamn much that I had to post it again. And hey, it's Oscar season!
How do I even begin expressing how tremendously I dislike this movie? By describing it thusly: emotionally simplistic and overwrought "noble savage" hipster condescension.
Yeah, that's a start.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a neo-primitive hero narrative set in an allegorical Greater New Orleans. Our hero is a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (yes, really) who lives in a cyclically apocalyptic land called The Bathtub, a bowl-shaped locale which lies on the other side of the levee from the rest of society. Among her many heroic virtues is an uncanny ability to be eloquent and metaphysical well beyond her years, something of which Lucy Alibar--the debutante-hipster who wrote the screenplay--seemingly could not get enough. "When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces," she says. I never knew a six-year-old could be so portentous.
The members of her community--which includes her father but not her runaway mother--have built a self-reliant, proud and unabashedly hedonistic lifestyle on their patch of muddy segregated land. Like in any Apocalyptica, USA, their daily life rituals are primitive even as they use tools from--and are surrounded by--the detritus of the modern world. Among the heaps and hardships they find plenty of time for drinking, eating, dancing, drinking, carrying on and drinking. That's right, they are just like the real-to-life rednecks and coloreds in the beautifully romantic despair you see all across the American South. Ain't it quaint?
Challenging this sizzling din, though, is a persistent rhythm of impending doom, one that Hushpuppy can feel through the earth salt in her flesh and hear with her wise ear so low to the ground. "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the whole universe will get busted," she tells us. Tell that to Darwin. Or God.
The Bathtub has a legend about primitive proto-cattle that once ruled their land but got frozen in the polar ice caps in the last Ice Age. Due to global warming, presumably, these aurochs will thaw out, herd into The Bathtub and once again stake their claim to supremacy. When that melting happens, of course, sea levels will rise and The Bathtub will also be incredibly vulnerable to storms. After all, the levee that segregates them is designed to keep excess water in The Bathtub and out of the rest of society.
Conveniently, a storm's a-comin' right at that point in a film where character development meets the accelerating plot. The wise thing to do, softies might say, is to leave The Bathtub before the impending storm, but most folks are having none of that. "They think we're all gonna drown down here. But we ain't going nowhere," Hushpuppy says, parroting the hubris of the obstinate adults around her.
The wise thing to do, a writer might say, is to continue character development while the plot progresses, but Alibar is having none of that. Hushpuppy's character is the only one that gets fleshed out at all, and even hers is mired in girl-power tropes.
The post-Katrina New Orleans fetish in this movie is more garish and hackneyed than Dr. John with a purple top hat and a talisman. Survival in poverty? Check. Pride in an anachronistic lifestyle? Ebullient hedonism? Check check. Mystical folklore? "Authentic" wisdom from ostensibly ignorant people? Victims of a cruel, uncaring, bureaucratic mainstream society? Check check check. They could have at least been a little more clever about it and placed the allegory somewhere other than a bowl-shaped geography in the Gulf of Mexico.
All this fetish does is rewarm shallow understandings of New Orleans and flawed simplifications of Black culture. They address the "laissez les bons temps rouler" tradition, but through a lens that doesn't explain the unique history of bad luck, tragedy, violence and oppression. You see the drinking and dancing in the face of annihilation, but you're left to assume it's because of present circumstances rather than a centuries-old history steeped in both Catholicism and mystical beliefs inherited from a wide swath of Africa. It also kept touching on the "tough love" aspect in Black culture. It is a very real thing--oversimplified beautifully in Boyz n the Hood and explained marvelously in the recent book The Warmth of Other Suns--but again the movie tried to display it without any real explanation, sensitivity, context or depth.
This is like the Vice Magazine approach to showcasing what is not in the American mainstream-- an arrogant liberal perspective in which "authentic culture" is prized by those without an understanding of what they claim to admire. This is particularly evident in the chaotic scenes after the storm. The Bathtub folks are evacuated to the big bad mainstream society and a mean old doctor in a white-bright room tells Hushpuppy's Daddy that he'll die if he doesn't have a heart operation. In response the whole cast escapes society, flees back home and Daddy takes a medicinal herb and worm concoction. The message is clear: the authenticity of voodoo worm medicine is way cooler than modern medicine and all its impersonal sterility and stuff.
I kept trying to like this soul-destroying movie, partly because I've always been fascinated with New Orleans's place in the imagination of America and partly because Quvenzhané Wallis's acting was quite good. The problem is that one girl's charming portrayal of bravery in isolation can't resolve hours of stylized racist hokum.
I also kept waiting for the disenfranchised but self-reliant people of The Bathtub to reclaim the civilization their culture created but from which they were unceremoniously kicked out, especially when they bombed the levee and when they found the floating nightclub seductively named Elysian Fields. Then I remembered that, just like vaudeville characters, these aren't ones in possession of their own spirits or destiny. Those are manipulated by their makers, even if those makers don't possess the knowledge to understand the depths of the culture they reference.
I guess to them it's all crawfish, Jax beer and sparklers.
Dana Stevens (Slate)