Saturday, January 5, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild: A Fairy Tale Ecology

"Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub." Beasts of the Southern Wild, which has been drowning in buzz since its release at Sundance last year, is a dreamy drama in the sense that it follows the logic of the unconscious more than traditional narrative structure. Hushpuppy, the six-year-old firebrand at the film's center, is consumed with mapping her world in four dimensions. She is almost painfully attuned to the life that teems out of every crevice of the Bathtub, the bayou community where she lives with a handful of diverse residents, and how those lives fit together and will be viewed by "the scientists of the future." Her eco-philosophy is that "the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece . . . the whole universe will get busted." And busted Hushpuppy's universe gets.

A series of personal and environmental catastrophes rock the Bathtub during the course of the film, and Hushpuppy must constantly recalibrate herself and her behavior in order to survive. The fantastical element of the film is found in the Auroch's, huge beasts that are released by the melting of the polar ice caps and ravage across the landscape. However, they alone do not explain the title. Hushpuppy recognizes herself and her friends as beasts as well, subject to the same brutal natural laws. Death is an inevitable part of any ecology, and Hushpuppy's response to the worsening health of her father, Wink, leads her on a hero's journey worthy of Joseph Campbell.

What interested me most when watching the film was that I had heard in the original stage production, Juicy and Delicious, Hushpuppy was a boy. I'm not sure about this, but I suspect some of the dialogue, including the moment when the now female protagonist screams "I'm the man" in a call and response with her father in a climactic scene, is original to the play. I think the gender dissonance of these moments is productive and authentic. The relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy is central to the film, and the child's absent mother is central to the plot. It makes sense that Wink would raise his daughter as he might a son, and the Bathtub is a remarkably equitable community, where categories like male and female, black and white, are much less important than ones like home and exile. Though I'm not as enchanted with Beasts as some reviewers, some of the shots are almost unbearably lovely and the argument that all life is beautifully, violently, interconnected is desperately urgent and only getting more so.

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