Monday, 25 February 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Overwrought Ecological Hokum

This is not a bona-fide review, as it gives away a lot of the plot, but it does explain my feelings towards it. It soon became clear that this film was shot in queasy-cam and I was going to have to steel my nerves not to vomit.

The film is set in Louisiana, in a poor part of the bayou on the edge of an ugly city where everyone is poor. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a little girl who lives in Bathtub with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a shack built from reclaimed cardboard. Their yard is full of disused junk and pigs and ducks. Hushpuppy has a separate shack from her father and she eats with the animals.

The scene of poverty but community is set through a carnival with drinking, folk music, fireworks and a Rabelaisian atmosphere. Hushpuppy provides sonorous notation throughout the film, which gets annoying when it attempts to be profound – precocious children are my bĂȘte noire. She tells us the wider community ‘got fish in plastic wrappers, chicken on sticks, babies stuck in carriages – they only have holidays once a year.’ The inference is that people in Bathtub may be poor, but they can have a good time all the time. ‘They built the wall that cut us off. They think we’re going to drown down here, but we ain’t going nowhere.’

Hushpuppy not only eats with the animals; she communes with them. She listens to the hens to hear what they have to say. ‘Most of the time it’s I’m hungry or I need to poop, but sometimes they talk in code.’ She is taught in school that the icecaps will melt and everything south of the levee will flood, ‘so y’all better learn how to survive’. She believes everything is connected and that ‘the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right’. Of course it doesn’t, and everything falls apart.

Her daddy is missing and her mother has swum away – she imagines talking to her mother and her mother singing back. Wink has been in a drunken incident and ended up in hospital, from which he discharges himself without his clothes and comes home ‘in a dress with a bracelet’.

Convinced of her own importance, Hushpuppy draws pictures of her life for future scientists to find, like cave paintings. ‘They will know that once there was a hushpuppy who lived with her daddy in a bathtub.’ While trying to cook, she sets fire to her shack, and then runs from her furious father. When he catches her he hits her and she thumps him in the heart. He falls down as though dead and she runs to find medicine for him in a sequence which demonstrates their fierce – often violent – co-dependency.

And then the storm comes, heralded by heavy symbolism of crumbling icebergs, insect larvae and aurochs – extinct beasts that look like giant cattle or buffalo. The sound of thunder is echoed in the collapsing ice shelves (some might call it magic realism; others might call it pretentious art school drivel) contrasting the hot and dirty land with the cold and clean – it’s all connected, in case we missed the point. Wink puts Hushpuppy in a suitcase with armbands on and tells her to go to sleep despite the wind and rain, ‘I’m your daddy and you have to do what I say because it’s my job to keep you from dying.’ He, meanwhile, picks up his gun and goes out to confront the storm, dealing with the physical the only way he knows how.

There’s very little of the storm itself before we cut to the aftermath. We see their pig in an altercation with an auroch. Aurochs died out in the seventeenth century; their extinction driven by hunting, a narrowing of habitat due to the development of farming, climactic changes, and diseases transmitted by domestic cattle. In other words, humans wiped them out, but as Hushpuppy intones, ‘every animal is made out of meat’ and, as animals, humans are just part of the food chain.

The quiet aftermath (a well-directed moment – actually, use of sound is good throughout the film) is disturbed by the boat containing Hushpuppy and Wink gliding through the water, with Hushpuppy’s voiceover, ‘For the animals that didn’t have a daddy to put them in a boat, the end of the world already happened. They’re all down below trying to breathe through water.’ They find some survivors and they band together, pooling their resources (pardon the pun) and feasting on crabs and prawns, ripping them apart with predatory fury. Hushpuppy needs comfort, but her father relies on strength and tells her ‘no crying allowed’. He reminisces about her mother, but his memories are sexual – ‘Mama was so pretty she didn’t even have to turn on the stove. She just walked into the room and all the water started to boil’ – when she needs maternal.

The survivors build a camp on top of the Bathtub, believing they have enough animals to last until the water goes down. The schoolteacher is among them and cautions, ‘Everything beautiful is gone. First the trees are gonna die, then the animals, then the fish – you better think about moving.’ She also tells Hushpuppy, ‘Most important thing I can teach you is to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are.’

Two weeks later the salt water causes everything to die – dead trees and bloated cows float by, and when the water recedes the true devastation is apparent. ‘It didn’t matter that the water was gone. Sometimes you can break something so bad that it can’t be put back together. When you’re small you have to fix what you can.’ The aurochs rampage through and there is a mandatory evacuation: ‘strong animals got no mercy.’

Hushpuppy and Wink are taken and put in a shelter with bright lights that ‘looked like a fish tank with no water’, which they are told is for their own good. ‘When an animal gets sick here they plug it into the wall. Daddy said that if he ever got so sick that he couldn’t drink beer or catch catfish I had to put him in a boat and set fire to it so they couldn’t plug him into the wall.’ Wink is very ill and, though she is told everybody’s daddy dies, Hushpuppy denies it: ‘Not my daddy’. He explains to her, ‘I can’t take care of you no more. I didn’t want you to see that’, but she faces down the aurochs and counters, ‘The brave stay and watch it happen. They don’t run’.

Things go all hallucinogenic as she swims to a shack on a raft where kindly prostitutes (including one who may or may not be her mother) adore her as a plaything – ‘One day everything on your plate gonna fall on the floor and there ain’t gonna be nobody there to pick it up for you.’ Hushpuppy receives some of the physical affection she craves, but I must admit I had given up by now, partly because of the shaky focus issues, and partly due to the overwrought ecological hokum. ‘I’m a little piece of a big, big universe.’ So you said. We get it.

The film is adapted from a stage play, Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar. She worked on the film screenplay with director, Benh Zeitlin, and made a few changes. The character of Hushpuppy is originally male, but they made her a little girl to explore the father/daughter relationship of love/ responsibility/ protection. Also Alibar says they filled it up with music. Most of this is by Zeitlin and Dan Romer, with other tunes included from Lost Bayou Ramblers, Balfa Brothers and Harry Coates. The Cajun-influenced rock beats suffuse the film with depth and richness – it’s definitely a highlight.


blurooferika said...

I disagree, Kate. I found BOTSW compelling and thought-provoking. I thought it did a fabulous job of portraying a very confusing world through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl with little education and few means to learn about the world other than through her drunken, terminally-ill dad and good-time neighbors.

The aurochs were a cool narrative device and something that Hushpuppy could relate to, given her affinity for animals of all kinds. The dream sequence with the other girls and the whores was her just reward for years spent yearning for her absentee mom. Yes, the audience had to suspend their disbelief in a few sections of the movie, but if indy filmmakers can't take liberties portraying a child's imagination, who can?

PS: I only found the camera work to be queasy and distracting in the very beginning of the film.

Kate Blackhurst said...

Fair enough. I really liked the relationship between Hushpuppy and her father (and her absent mother), and I appreciate her perception of the confusing world.

I have no problem at all with the suspension of belief, but I just thought the eco message was very heavy-handed and overdone. I get that she needs to interpret the world her own way because she is only six and uneducated, but there is no need to treat the audience as though they are too. I hate being preached at.

And I know I suffer badly from cinema vertigo and that it doesn't effect everyone, but to those of us it does, it's torture.

Anyway, it must have been thought-provoking and affecting because I wrote about it, right? And it certainly wasn't my least favourite of the Oscar-nominated films...

Kate x