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.
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