This is the craziest PG-13 I've ever seen. The language pushes it as far as it can go. Like, I was thinking that this movie was a hard R based on the language alone. But also, there's child abuse and endangerment, prostitution (implied), and an insane amount of alcohol abuse. There's also some messed up health issues that aren't easy to watch. But I'm rarely going to fight the PG-13 rating of something. Color me more shocked than appalled.
DIRECTOR: Benh Zeitlin
This might have been the movie I was wildly obsessed with when it came out and thought that it would change the face of cinema, but was forgotten to history pretty quickly. It was 2012's Nomadland for me. But when my wife was "meh" about it, I started to question if we watched the same movie. I haven't really had the opportunity to rewatch it since then. But now that I've rewatched it, it still completely crushed me in the same way that it did in 2012. Have I not grown? Is everyone else wrong? Maybe just my read on the cultural zeitgeist is wrong. Regardless, this movie still really impressed me.
Again, I'm the guy who always has daddy issues. (Remind me: I need to call my mom.) These are the movies that absolutely crush me and they always have, regardless of the kinds of fathers they are. Wink is not my dad. He's nothing like my dad. But Wink is unique in the canon of cinema for me. Fathers like Wink tend to be all good or all bad. Wink is complicated as heck for me. (I'm kind of talking about Wink early so I can really invest in Hushpuppy later because this is her story.) There are characters that deal with mental health issues who gain sympathy mainly because much of their behavior is not their absolute fault. But these characters rarely come across as both noble and despicable. Wink seems to be dealing with schizophrenia. I'm diagnosing him myself. Don't worry. It's okay. He's a fictional character. At least, he is bipolar coupled with the fact that he might have leukemia. Zeitlin portrays Wink initially from a point of love. He's a poor man with a child who gives her the best life he can afford. The famous shot of Hushpuppy running down the Bathtub double-streamers flying has this shot of Wink smiling at his daughter's joy. We're meant to like Wink. But then Wink comes back and we have something very similar to To Kill a Mockingbird.
With To Kill a Mockingbird, we can only understand adulthood from the perspective of Scout, who can only apply a child's knowledge to the tragic events surrounding her. Similarly, Hushpuppy views her father in extremes. Wink is either the best father in the world or he's a toxic mess. When Hushpuppy finds her father garbed in a hospital robes after being abandoned for days, Zeitlin leaves us in the dark in regards to what is actually happening with Wink. But we see him almost as a different human being. Wink is now obsessed with drinking. His anger causes Hushpuppy to burn her home down and almost die in the ensuing fire. Wink's reaction to this is both absolute love and absolute hatred for this girl. He saved her, but also feels this need to destroy her simultaneously. We, as the audience, can quickly understand that Wink is dying. (Mind you, it is at the same point that Hushpuppy comes to the same conclusion, so the film doesn't break its own rules.) There's that sacrificial love that is too immature to be formed into something productive.
Because the Wink of the beginning of the movie is fading and being corrupted by illness, Hushpuppy is forced to reconcile reality with the fictional world that Wink has created for her. (I told you that I could transition this into something about Hushpuppy.) Sweet Tooth on Netflix did the same thing, if you want to watch something else with a similar idea. But that's when the image of the Beasts chasing Hushpuppy keeps happening. The metaphor there is cool, but also a little muddied. For a long time in the movie, the Beasts seem like fate or death. I probably could even stay that with that breakdown. Wink's slow fading away is the Beast being unearthed. Similarly, the Beasts are climate change, leading to the toxicity of the Bathtub due to Man's poor stewardship of the Earth. But there's one shot where the Beasts are chasing the four girls. The three girls scream and Hushpuppy simply confronts the Beast. It is in this moment that I believe that the Beasts represent her womanhood. She has abandoned the years of her ignorance and dependence on a man and instead takes her fate into her own hands. The other three girls are not in the same mental space as Hushpuppy, so they continue screaming. However, Hushpuppy, with the impending death of Wink, has learned that her father cannot be trusted.
I just read an article from the New Atlantic that makes an interesting point, which may be why people aren't that into this movie. Beasts of the Southern Wild may be considered racist. I'm going to discuss this with the knowledge that this needs to be thought of a bit. One of the things that really appeals to me in this movie is the same thing that happens when India is filmed. Outside of Beasts, India is one of those rare places that manages to show beauty in abject poverty. It's both heartbreaking and inspiring. Beasts of the Southern Wild outright evokes the same thing. Because we follow the residents of the Bathtub from their perspective --particularly Hushpuppy's --we emotionally connect with their worldview. The people on the other side of the levee live a life of toxicity. They have no connection with nature. They seem distant and emotionally hollow. While Hushpuppy and her Bathtub community may have very little in terms of luxury or traditional civilization, we see them mostly in a state of contentment. When the Bathtub becomes condemned because of the hurricane, intellectually the audience understands that they have to leave their home or risk certain death. But we want them to continue to live the life that they have.
But the New Atlantic makes the case that poverty isn't romantic. It's something that is systemic and that we shouldn't glorify what capitalism has done to people like Hushpuppy or Wink. It doesn't help that the protagonists are both Black, but the bigger issue is that something like Beasts of the Southern Wild stops us for fighting against poverty because we can turn a blind eye if there's something appealing about being off the grid. I'm never going to be the authority about what is racist and what is not. Part of being an anti-racist is questioning and fighting and challenging. What I will say is that while the effect of glorifying poverty isn't great, Beasts of the Southern Wild also reminds us about the humanity of the poor. Rather than treating the poor as less than human, Beasts does the opposite. Because they have survived and struggled, there's something almost more than human about them. The people from civilization, for all of their good acts, seem cold and sad. The people of the Bathtub, however, find a reason to celebrate whenever they can. It then boils down to an intellectual read of the film versus an emotional read of the film.
Because if you did that, the intellectual read doesn't really like the movie. After all, there are all these people who want what is best. Wink is this father who is constantly endangering this girl with his undiagnosed and untreated mental disorder. They are living in a place where wildlife can no longer survive. The only thing keeping them there is their pride and that's something that can't happen. Yet, the movie emotionally presents the social services as the villains of the piece. (I'd hate to be a social worker because so many movies make them out to be the bad guys, despite the fact that they've committed to making the underprivileged more comfortable and successful.)
So I can see why some people might not dig the movie. But I can't help but love the cinema of the whole thing. And while I see the New Republic's perspective and probably agree with it, I can't deny that the film is committed to showing the humanity of the ignored. That's such a strong concept that shouldn't get ignored. Yet, we should continue fighting for the end of poverty and films like Beasts of the Southern Wild do risk making poverty attractive.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.