I left the movie theater Wednesday night exhausted and a little weepy. I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about the movie we’d just seen, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I knew I felt something. All I was certain of was that the star 6-year-old actress, Quevenzhane Wallis, is the most photogenic child on the planet.

The plot, if you are unfamiliar, is simple. Beasts follows a girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her father in an off-the-grid Louisiana community called the Bathtub. Sparse of dialogue, lush of scenery, the plot follows Hushpuppy and her father through a few short days surrounding a Katrina-like storm.

I think it’s a movie that grows on you, a movie that digs into the little pockets of your brain and takes root. Images from it keep springing up, unbidden, like Hushpuppy hiding under a cardboard box after setting her house on fire to spite her father. She draws with charcoal, marking her story for future excavators like the cave people she has just learned about. Another scene, in a hospital after the flood, shows the girl stripped of her usual dirty undershirt and shorts and forced into a pretty blue dress, her hair combed into braids.

At Salon (via LA Times), Kelly Candaele argues that Beasts presents this community of misfits with a sort of irresponsible glee, as if their poverty and disconnection facilitates joy and spontaneity that the rest of couldn’t achieve:

Viewers are asked to interpret a lack of work discipline, schooling, or steady institution building of any kind — the primary building blocks of any civilization — as the height of liberation. “Choice,” even the choice to live in squalor, is raised to the level of a categorical imperative. There is no inkling of the economic and social history of the region that had limited these “choices.” We are left with a libertarian sandbox, with a rights-based life philosophy gone rancid.

The film does open up a whole bunch of cans of worms, none of which have I been able to re-close since I’ve been mulling it over. Lots of big questions about community building, about the right to live as you see fit, about parenting, about infrastructure, about nature, about education. There are big questions about the obligations of the state and how far it should go to “assist” marginalized populations. Should they evacuate people who don’t want to be evacuated? Should they force medical care on people who don’t want it? Is there something fundamentally wrong with the upbringing Hushpuppy has, so wrong that the state needs to intervene?

Education, for me, is the hinge on which all of these other questions are resting. Hushpuppy is precocious, inquisitive, imaginative and self-sufficient. She’s everything that most teachers would want in a student, but how much of her curiosity and creativity is fueled by the neglect she experienced and her subsequent self-sufficiency? With formal education and support, she could be anything, but the film portrays formalized assistance as stifling and intrusive. Surely there’s a middle ground, somewhere between turning her into the blue-dressed doll and letting her explore her surrounding for days on end, unsupervised and uncared for.

This is a self-indulgent post, so mad props to you if you’ve stuck with me. I didn’t know what to make of it in the immediate aftermath, but the next morning I chatted my movie buddy and said, “I think I liked that movie” and she said, “I think I did too.” And then we talked about it for a while, so that’s something. If you’ve seen it and can parse out this mess ‘o thoughts into more articulate questions or arguments, I’d love to hear your take.

Related Post: The last movie I loved, The Queen of Versailles.

Related Post: Why I think “higher order thinking skills” are important.


Filed under Art, Education, Hollywood

3 responses to “Hushpuppy

  1. Nearly forgot to reply to this, but as promised: I liked the movie. Actually, I loved it. This is weird and dorky, but I actually rode my bike home from the movie with tears streaming down my face, feeling elated. I understand the points the writer you quote is making, and also your points about education and choice and neglect. I did find myself thinking about those things as I watched. But my mind didn’t stay there long, thinking about the social issues or the history behind the region, or the most likely future for Hushpuppy—which let’s face it, is probably a difficult one.

    The reason I was a bit less troubled by those issues (although they’re certainly there, in the middle distance) is that for me, the storytelling felt less literal than that. Without really thinking about it, I found myself thinking about what I was seeing as if I were Hushpuppy seeing these things and interpreting her world with the magical thinking of a 6-year-old who has lived a life isolated from the world. Early in the movie, she says something in the voiceover like, (In the Bathtub) “…we celebrate all the time.”

    That voiceover, if I remember correctly, was accompanied by this kind of magical fireworks scene, and it set my mind up to encounter the rest of the story almost as fable or myth. So when I saw the scene of the people drinking in a squalid, littered shack, I didn’t see and judge it the way I usually would. I saw it the way Hushpuppy might: “Here we are celebrating again.” That’s how she chooses to see “her people,” and she’s probably filtering out a lot of nastiness, because she’s a little kid and wants to see the world as lovely and safe. She’s not ready to see racism and addiction and poverty yet, so she basically ignores it.

    But slowly, we see reality starting to leak in: when her dad strikes her, and she rebels; when she acknowledges what’s been unspoken—that her dad is dying; that she’s never going to find her mom. But she doesn’t absorb it all at once—she intersperses that slate-gray clarity with shiny bits of magic, it seems to me. Otherwise, it would be too much to bear. (Is that what the metaphor of the Aurochs was all about? Still not sure, but it was intriguing and weirdly powerful.)

    I don’t know if it’s fair to say that the filmmakers are making some kind libertarian commentary on freedom. I think those kinds of judgements are what people place on stories based on their own political consciousness. The way I read it was that this is how Hushpuppy would see things: that she would have no idea how narrow and poor her life was, because she knew no other. All she knew was that she was losing her entire world, meager though it was. And so the “intrusion” of the outside world (although we read it as well-meaning) would appear menacing and foreign to her.

    And in the end, (am I reading this right?) it seems to me that Hushpuppy is leading the march back into The World, to face what scares her most. Because it’s the only choice she has. And she she invents a mythology for herself—myths of a beautiful home and a wonderful, caring dad—because they are the stories she needs to tell herself in order to survive and face the Big World with courage and a sense of who she is.

    Not sure why I just wrote an entire post about this on your site, but there it is. Cheers!

  2. Pingback: For a Good Time, Call the Ladies of “For a Good Time Call” | rosiesaysblog

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