I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see "Beasts of the Southern Wild" lose out on all of its four nominations at the Academy Awards ceremony, receiving only what I perceived as patronizing references that seemed more like the Academy patting itself on the back for generously according some recognition to "the little people." The surprised reaction I got in some quarters for naming it the best picture of the year on my own personal top ten list (www.opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com) reinforced my sense that, for all the critical acclaim it has garnered, it still is one of the most underappreciated films of the year. So, here's my best attempt to capture why this film earned my admiration.
The poor (which disproportionately means African Americans) are rarely accorded much dignity in American films, when they are portrayed at all. In fact, compared to just about any other culture, American films overwhelmingly reside in the world of the wealthy and the beautiful, even when they purport to be portraying the middle class.
"Beasts" stands out, first, because it depicts a community whose poverty is deep, intractable, lived-in. Yet it is not exactly about their poverty; it aims to depict a community that feels itself to be rich in many ways, though its conditions are unimaginable to most movie-going Americans . The motherless five-year-old child at its center, who is called Hushpuppy, lives in squalor in a shack next to the one inhabited sometimes by her father, Wink, who is engaged in an epic struggle with a life-threatening illness. Hushpuppy is too often alone, and Wink's treatment of her may well be questioned. Yet she experiences her community as a magical place and is attentive to the many lessons she receives from listening to the heartbeats of its creatures and observing her elders. She acquires from that community, especially from a wise artist and herbalist and from Wink, an epic determination and a sense of the mythical importance of her own life and her relationship to the universe. Many parents whose neglect of their children would be considered far less egregious than Wink's fail to accord such riches to their children.
Hushpuppy narrates her story with an abiding sense of its significance, referring to the lessons she is learning that will inform the "scientists of the future" and how "in a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy who lived with her daddy in The Bathtub" (their name for the backwater Louisiana bayou they call home). Hers is not the annoyingly precocious arrogance of many movie children, but an inspiring, though childlike, sense of her life's purpose and meaning. When she talks of her community's struggles after a decimating Katrina-like storm, she notes their recognition that "it wasn't no time to sit around crying like a bunch of pussies." And facing recurrent dangers, she notes that "me and my daddy, we stay right here. We's who the earth is for." Hushpuppy has learned from Wink to expect struggle, and both are going about equipping her to embrace it.
Hushpuppy personifies the challenges of her life in the form of Aurochs, huge and mythical creatures depicted in cave drawings which she believes are coming with the melting of polar icecaps. I love that the film balances gritty realism with a form of mythical storytelling that captures the import of the community's struggle to survive. The Aurochs seem to signify the dangers that confront not just Hushpuppy and her community, but all humanity--the encroachment of modernity, or environmental disaster, or economic devastation; the loss of health and independence. As Hushpuppy recognizes, "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted." And she has learned to focus her fierceness on doing what she can to maintain her part of that essential balance. So when the film culminates in an actual face-off between Hushpuppy and the Aurochs, the impact is profound, as she registers something of the true nature of heroic human striving. Make no mistake; there is real wisdom in Hushpuppy's narration. "When it all goes quiet behind my eyes," she declares, " I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces. I see that I'm a little piece of a big, big universe." We should all live with this kind of wild clarity and determination.
There are a couple more things worth noting. This film contains an ideal of beauty that resides in a universe more rustic and more evolved than the Hollywood ideal. Its women, including the wise herbalist and a group of prostitutes who emerge to shelter Hushpuppy and her friends as they are longing for maternal comfort, shimmer with refreshing earthiness and warmth. The earth is depicted not with airbrushed smoothness, but as a teeming mass of savage and glorious vitality.
Finally, without glamorizing or fetishizing their poverty, the film captures something of the beauty and largess of the disenfranchised, and depicts how efforts of outsiders to help them may end up doing actual harm. Never has a film captured so well the biblical sense that the poor and marginalized have a kind of wisdom that the world desperately needs, a wisdom that should be accorded reverence. Buoyed by joyous music grounded in the bayou and by cinematography that finds beauty even in squalor, first-time director Benh Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar have delivered here a piece of filmmaking that we as a culture may need to evolve a bit to recognize. I felt my own soul expand in the act of watching and absorbing it. And that's the stuff of greatness.