Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oscars 2013: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the  Southern Wild (U.S., 2012) directed by Benh Zeitlin
Nominated for Four Oscars
Best Actress In a Leading Role
Best Picture
Best Directing
Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

I am sensitive to the observation that this film has been accused of being "poverty porn". I see where that arises from. I wonder if that observation would be made if the director were black. If he were, I think the perception of the film would be something along the lines of the film being magical, beautifully photographed, and, for the most part, sensitively done ... I think we would be overwhelmed with the beauty of what we saw and would stop thinking of the impoverished Louisianans being represented in this film as being exploited.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a precocious, very beautiful six year old living in squalid conditions in "The Bathtub", a fictionalized version of the Isle de Jean Charles near New Orleans. It is the geographic inspiration for the setting of the island depicted in the film.  

Wallis' actions and demeanor are so natural, and affecting, that one easily forgets this is her first acting role.  

Hushpuppy's mother has long deserted the family; her father Wink (Dwight Henry) is an alcoholic, possibly epileptic, with heart troubles and woefully unable to care for Hushpuppy at times. The descriptions of the mother are sensuous and beautiful, she very much inhabits Hushpuppy's imagination. As Wink recounts it, she lit ovens and set pots to boil as she walked by ... she was that sensuous, that vibrant. Cleverly, we never see her physical presence fully, only tantalizing portions of it, which only add to the allure.

Wink is a hot-headed charmer with a vivid imagination who inspires Hushpuppy even if his actions seem chaotic and alien to us. He shoots a rifle into the storm to show his daughter that they won't be intimidated by the storm, feeds his daughter as if she was a pet and challenges her to an arm wrestle (and lets her win) to build up her confidence shouting, "Who da man?" and "Show me your guns!"to which Hushpuppy happily obliges.

Zeitlin says that he was inspired by the Katrina survivors who refused to leave New Orleans in the wake of the 2005 hurricane. The portrait of those survivors is not always pleasant or positive - there is drunkenness and foolishness and a relaxed attitude towards the raising of children that may infuriate some. 

However, when we see Hushpuppy and her father being forcefully removed and brought to an evacuation center the viewer can't help making a negative contrast between Hushpuppy's lush world of natural beauty and wildlife amid squalor and the sterile, ugly evacuation centre where the Louisiana natives appear beaten down, physically diminished, caged almost.

When Wink stages a coup and releases himself, Hushpuppy and many of the other Bathtub residents from the evacuation centre, despite the dangerousness and precariousness of it all, there is a sense of liberation, of joy. And of the rightness of his actions. 

In her imagination, Hushpuppy sees herself a part of a long line of survivors, ancient beasts who roamed the earth - pictured here in her imagination as gigantic wild boars - who will persevere. "I see that I'm a little beast in a big, big universe ..." she states at the end. And who could doubt her? 


Chris Edwards said...

I definitely think the director WANTED us to be overwhelmed by the beauty of what we saw... because he didn't give us more than that.

"Stare at the kid, the beautiful kid... forget that nothing's happening..."

A Lit Chick said...

I'm not sure how you can say that ... there's a hurricane that hits New Orleans, Hushpuppy sets her home on fire, the father falls ill and dies, the father also leads a coup out of the evacuation centre ... perhaps these things are not of interest to you; however, it's not as if nothing happens.