Beasts of the Southern Wild, from first-time director, Benh Zeitlin is apparently a heart-warming story of a child’s imagination and resilience in a world beset by disaster. At least, I assume that was the aim.
The film I saw must be different from the one the wowed audiences at Sundance Cannes earlier this year. While there are positives to take from a film that does admittedly look far more expensive than it’s $1.3m budget, most of those positives come from very good performances from the first-time actors in the central roles.
Quvenzhané Wallis is mightily impressive as the six-year-old girl Hushpuppy – a child who’s lived her whole life in The Bathtub; a community who live in the swamps and flood planes beyond New Orleans’ levee flood defences. However, the film lost me in the first 10 minutes, with its patronising white-liberal guilt portrayal of the wisdom of people who choose to live in the bayou.
As the film is told through the eyes of a child it can attempt to fool the viewer into admiring the struggle of these people – but while Hushpuppy’s voice-over describes how they are always having holidays while everyone else in the world has one a year, the harsh reality barely hinted at by the director is of a community beset by squalid living conditions, domestic abuse, alcoholism, and terrible life expectancy. Hushpuppy’s father has indoctrinated her into believing that she is happy here. This is the story of a six-year-old girl manipulated by her father, and who will likely die at a young age.
This attitude of ‘us and them’ continues as disaster strikes The Bathtub. A huge storm floods the area, and leads to the authorities ‘forcibly removing’ (or rescuing to you and I) Hushpuppy and her father to a hospital. The staff at the hospital are painted as insensitive and unhelpful (Hushpuppy is shown being told-off in a crèche in the only scene that features a childcare professional), and Hushpuppy and her father and friends ‘escaping’ is portrayed as a noble act, rather than the actions of a selfish parent blind to the harm they’re causing to their child.
While this is happening the mythical auroch (basically big pigs, as seen above) are making their way south from the Arctic having been woken from their slumber by the melting of the ice caps. I know this because that’s what passes for a science lesson at The Bathtub’s only school. They should be very concerned about their next Ofsted inspection. And as for the Lynchian strip club scene where a variety of women danced in their underwear with some runaway children…
I do have to commend the performances of Wallis and Dwight Henry who plays her father – first-time actors from the area the film was shot. It wouldn’t be too big a surprise to see an Oscar nomination for Willis, but Henry has been overlooked in many quarters. In fact his portrayal of a father who loves his child, but rarely acts like it is more truthful than anything else in this film.
A recent review in Sight & Sound described this film as being like an Arcade Fire video. A different musical reference came to mind while I was watching it – that of the subjects of Pulp’s seminal Common People.
You will never understand,
How it feels to live your life,
With no meaning or control,
And with nowhere else to go,
You are amazed that they exist…
More awareness needs to be raised about the effects on children living in poverty, and the mind-blowing realisation that so many people live as portrayed in this film – disenfranchised from a society that has forgotten them. But this sugar-coated childish viewpoint actually distracts the audience from some of the horrible abuses children suffer from in areas of extreme poverty.