(Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to learn something pretty essential about the end of this movie, do not read the last paragraph of this post.)
When my daughter Maria was three or four, she said to me “Daddy, I’m bigger than you.”
“What?” I said “You’re not bigger than me. You only come up to my belly.”
Exasperated, she replied “I mean inside.”
My little girl is a force of nature with a huge inner life; she was right, she is bigger than me inside.
I thought of this watching Hushpuppy, the little girl at the heart of the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. This is another small person with a vast interior life.
I had wanted to see this film when it first came out, but like most really fine films it did not screen around here; I would have had to drive to University Heights, just outside of Cleveland, to the Cedar Lee theater, where all the “arty” movies play.( It sort of astounds me that Akron does not have a venue for good movies).
The last time I drove to Cleveland to see a film it was to see the much-acclaimed “The Tree of Life”. That trip was a disaster. I began my hour drive after a long hot day at work, already exhausted. I had looked forward to jerk chicken at the only authentic Jamaican restaurant in northeast Ohio, but when I got there the place was closed. I then got lost trying to find my way to the theater, and as I was parking my brakes sank to the floor. I had to eat a hurried, mediocre, overpriced meal and then rush to the Cedar Lee. I was anxious about driving through Cleveland without brakes. I was dog-tired.
As a result I really could not enjoy the long meditative movie that is “The Tree of Life”. My probably too sour review can be read here. (Apparently there was air in the brakelines; the problem never recurred). I haven’t even wanted to watch the film again, though I am pretty sure it is far better than I could perceive in my exhausted, stressed state.
So I waited for “Beasts” to come out on DVD, which it did last week. My week, of course, was interrupted by the huge drama I described in my last post, but a couple of nights ago, and again last night, I settled in to watch the much-anticipated film.
And it is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I had not read a review that did not overflow with superlatives, and I can see why. The tale is of the small child Hushpuppy, her father Wink, and their poor backwoods south Louisiana community, the Bathtub. Her Mama had left some time before; Hushpuppy, who narrates the film, says she “swam away”, though she still is part of the little girl’s world. She can hear her voice and talk to her, but she cannot see her.
In spinning this tale the first-time filmmaker, one Benh Zeitlin, brilliantly captures the magical reality of childhood. The girl who plays Hushpuppy, Quvenzhané Wallis, a local, untrained actor who was five when the film was made, is a revelation (the man who plays her father, Dwight Henry, is also a local amateur).
What no one mentioned in any of the review I read was the music, which is wonderfully evocative, and which the director co-wrote.
Hushpuppy lives in a world of wonders, where anything can happen. When her father is not where she left him, ailing in the woods, she is pretty sure he has turned into a bug or a tree. She listens to the heartbeats of creatures, and says there is language there, which she sometimes understands: “Most of the time they be saying ‘I hungry’ or ‘I gotta poop’, but sometimes they be talkin in code.” She is alert to the codes hidden in the mysterious universe, alert to everything around her. At her improbable school, when the teacher tells the students about the huge neolithic beasts that once roamed the earth, eating cave babies, she melds this with what the teacher had told her about the melting polar ice caps. Hushpuppy knows that the beasts are thawing, coming back alive and heading south, ready to consume her.
The story that unfolds around Hushpuppy and her world involves the approaching Hurricane Katrina. How that storm affects the Bathtub, and how its inhabitants resist both “the dry world” on the other side of the levies and the State, which forcibly evacuates the Bathtub after the storm, along with the drama of her ailing hothead father, at once callous and caring, is, as I said, compelling, but it is really all a framework for Hushpuppy’s odyssey.
My only criticism of the film is that the Bathtub strains credulity. It is a poor interracial community ,and hard liquor flows in alarming amounts, and not only among adults. This is a situation which in the real world would inevitably mean endemic violence, yet the only indication of this is when Hushpuppy’s Daddy slaps her. And there is not hint of drug abuse. For that matter, while I know by observing interracial couples that there seems to be less racism among the poor than among the affluent, the dynamic seems to be the acceptance of the racial “outsider” into the family, not the melding of families and communities. But here in this film Cajuns and poor blacks and rednecks coexist in mutual affection. Maybe, but somehow this seems unlikely, especially in the Deep South.
But on another level, if one suspends that disbelief, the film is a cinematic localist manifesto. Even if it is a dysfunctional community of alcoholics, it is a real community in a real place. There is celebration, comraderie, and joy. When the State intervenes the clash of worlds is jarring. Hushpuppy is briefly seen with her wild hair tamed, dressed in a pretty dress rather than her usual cast-off clothes, probably invoking images of Indian children shuttled off to government schools a century ago, their hair cut short and wearing uncomfortable-looking European suits.
But in the end, this is Hushpuppy’s tale, and when she faces the beasts, who finally arrive in the Bathtub, it is a triumph that brought tears to my eyes.