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Bravery in the face of a harsh, but fragile, world
on January 14, 2015
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is one of those Oscar-winning movies that I missed out on seeing the first time around, and I really didn't have much of a motivation to actually watch it since the Academy Awards aren't terribly important to me. Still, I am glad that I finally decided to break down and watch it because there were aspects of it that really spoke to me on an emotional level.
It stars Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father in a Louisiana bayou community called the Bathtub. There isn't a concrete story, per se, instead following Hushpuppy around as she learns how the world works and is gradually exposed to what a harsh place it can be. One central theme is the fragility of human communities, and how one thing going wrong can lead to loss of balance and equilibrium. A prime real-world example of this, and one that I think the film took inspiration from, is Hurricane Katrina. This is never addressed in the film, either directly or indirectly, but the specter of that natural disaster hangs over it like a cloud. There is also fragility in the sense that the levee is the only thing that keeps the Bathtub functioning and thriving, and its destruction radically changes life for its residents.
Another theme, which was more applicable to me than the proudly defiant and resilient Bayou community, was that of bravery and courage in the face of death. Having recently (yesterday), just gone through the loss of my grandfather, the way in which Hushpuppy has do deal with the impending loss of her father hit very close to home. And connecting to the previous theme, her father is a vital part of her world and losing him is something she has to come to terms with, even for being so young and impressionable. This brings me to my general impression of the film, and that is a child's view of the world, innocent and optimistic. We often try to shield our young from the trials and travails that life sometimes has in store, but inevitably they will experience these things and we need to prepare them for when that time comes.
As far as quality goes, I could take or leave the handheld shooting style but I will at least admit that it works in a naturalistic sort of way and meshes well with the naturalistic performances given by the cast. The performances themselves were decent, and Quvenzhane Wallis was particularly good, although I would probably chalk this up more to the director than Wallis herself. I also appreciated the on-location shooting which shows off the natural beauty of the Lousiana bayou. What didn't quite work for me, and maybe it's because I didn't quite "get" it, was the aurochs. The metaphorical use of these extinct creatures came off as a little too pretentious for me and the film probably would have been just as effective without them. Perhaps they were supposed to represent the "beasts" in the title but there were already enough real animals in the film to illustrate Hushpuppy's connection with them, and of course the "human animal."
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I actually enjoyed this film. It started off a little bit on shaky ground, but as the film progressed it grew on me and I was completely on-board with it by the end. It might be too artsy for some due to its meandering story structure and ponderous voiceover, but it does a good job of probing the psyche of a child and examining how we as humans fit into the natural world. If Terrence Malick is too difficult to get into for you but you still like a thought-provoking, imaginative film, then this will probably do just fine.