How can critics get it so wrong? Today we watched Beasts of the Southern Wild – a film that has received accolades from critics across the board , yet a more pointless, infantile and mendacious film I have not seen in a long while.
About ten minutes from the end the film’s main character, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, asks ‘where are we going’. I wanted an answer to that question, too.
This is the first film directed by Benh Zeitlin, who probably should have stuck to the day job. The setting is some remote Louisiana bayou where a feral ‘community’ of black and white whisky-swilling deadbeats live a chaotic life in a squalid shacks that are threatened by rising waters when a Katrina-type hurricane comes. Wink (Dwight Henry) lives in a collapsing shack while his six-year-old daughter called Hushpuppy (who is, it has to be said, superbly played by total newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), lives in another shack a few yards away. He prefers it that way, and if she wants a cuddle he’s likely to give her a punch in the face. Wink has a heart problem (you’re not kidding), indeed the hint is that he may be suffering from a broken heart caused by the disappearance of Hushpuppy’s mother, a woman who was such a stunner she could light the gas stove just by walking past it.
The hurricane comes, leaving devastation in its wake. Hushpuppy reckons it’s all down to the melting icecaps and rising water levels. She says things like, ‘The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted’.
But only an American could turn an allegory of global warming into a macho survivalist manifesto. ‘This ain’t no time to sit around cryin’ like a buncha pussies!’ screams Wink. He encourages his daughter to show her strength by flexing her upper-arm muscles, like a kiddie bodybuilder. ‘Show me them guns!’ he yells. One time, after the storm, when the locals are busy extracting meat from crabs they have caught, a demented Wink comes down hard on his girl for using a knife: ‘Be the beast!’ he roars, as he demonstrates how she should pull them apart with her bare hands. The community’s wise woman and seer reckons all animals are just meat. Hushpuppy learns quick; she says: ‘Strong animals know when your hearts are weak’.
Zeitlin’s portrayal of the Bathtub community. There’s an early scene of drunken, fiddle-playing jollifications – filmed like a Jamaican rum advert that I recall seeing over and over again in cinemas about 20 years ago – which has a sentimental voiceover from Hushpuppy saying how people in the world on the far side of the levee don’t get as much out of life: ‘Me and my daddy, we stay right here. We who this earth is for’.
But these brave, life-loving survivors are a nothing more than a group of dysfunctional families: they’re heavy drinkers, who fight and show no care for their kids. I can only imagine what the real residents of the bayous of southern Louisiana must think of this portrait of their neck of the woods.
The worst thing about the film is having to hear Hushpuppy intone her cosmic philosophy: ‘Sometimes you can break something so bad, that it can’t get put back together’, she says. And, at the film’s welcome end, ‘I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right’.
I haven’t mentioned the aurochs, released by the melting polar ice, have I?
Update: for a lengthier critical review that highlights some the points made here, but develops them further, see The politics of myth making: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild‘ by Agnes Woolley on openDemocracy