When I first read about “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, I was excited about it. It was made by fellow grads of my alma mater, Wesleyan University and it was made in an organic fashion, using improvisation and non-actors from the area in Louisiana where they were filming. Here’s the link to a great article in Film Comment – http://www.filmcomment.com/article/beasts-of-the-southern-wild-behn-zeitlin
You can learn a lot about how the film was made and the filmmaker’s methods there.
When I first saw “Beasts” it was in a movie theater, which, because I have small kids and never leave the house, was a big deal. And better yet, my filmmaker friend Jason just happened to be in town so we caught it together. Jason has two girls under ten, as do I, so had many lenses through which to view the film.
So why did I love it? Well, I love fantasy and this has elements of that – it’s a vision of what some people in a fictional community might do in the possible near future. Central to the story and to the main character’s imagination are fictional/pre-historic beasts who eat children.
But mostly I loved the little girl. Not the first time I watched it, but the second and third times, I was really able to focus on her character and her character’s growth as a human being. I’m so happy this film was made.
The main character’s name is Hush Puppy, she’s about six and she lives with her dad who has some painful unnamed illness that will eventually consume him. Her mom has left them and there are no other relatives in the picture. She has a tough-talking teacher and she’s known in her community but her life is with her dad and they struggle.
Though he is mean sometimes, gruff beyond imagining, and battling his own demons, it becomes clearer and clearer that he is trying to toughen her up so she can survive without him. It’s unthinkable that a six year old should need to be toughened up but he knows he will not be there long and he is trying to take care of her the best he can. But it’s hard to watch.
To her credit, she is no mewling girl and she’s nobody’s victim. She is sensitive, intuitive, supportive and maintains her sanity in the ways of six year olds. She draws, she fantasizes about her mother, she cares for her animals and eventually cares for her dad. She gets angry, she gets scared, she gets sad, she loves her home and her community. We experience her community and the demise of her world through her eyes. It’s not a children’s film. There is real peril and cursing, there is drinking and death. There is no prince to rescue her, there is no fairy to make it all better. She has to survive it on her own and she does.
A few years ago, I watched a lot of women’s basketball, I know that seems unrelated but stay with me. I like basketball but I never played and I was not a huge NBA fan like some people are. What I loved, what I craved what women’s basketball gave me that I was not getting anywhere else on TV or in film was real black women. Women focused, women determined, women angry, women hurt, women having fun, women celebrating, women thinking and strategizing, women trying their best, women succeeding, women failing, women helping each other, women cursing, women chest bumping, women truly defeated and women experiencing joy. Women not thinking about love or being a victim. I watched a lot of women’s basketball and loved every minute of it. Even when my team lost, I still won.
That’s what I feel like after having watched Beasts of the Southern Wild. I see, feel and experience a real little black girl experiencing emotions, fighting, throwing things, trying to make sense of it all and doing her best to do her 6 year old best.
I have read a lot of other reviews and critiques of this film which mostly remind me of how I need to up my game but I wanted to see how others were reacting. And a lot of it was personal. Many felt there was a lot of unspoken racism in the film, many hated the portrayal of the dad, Wink as an angry, abusive black man, many hated that Hushpuppy was not cared for as a child should be but was projected as a “strong black woman” who didn’t need to be cared for, most resented the sentimentalization of poverty. Many were disturbed by the character portrayals mostly because the filmmakers were not black nor southern. Oh and one hated how public health officials were portrayed, which I found to be random but okay, we all have our own things…
Me? I was encouraged. A film where a young black girl is the protagonist???? I have been searching for another film for comparison but haven’t found one for a girl of 9 or under. Let me know if you know of one.
I would say this film is generally for 12 and up, maybe a sophisticated 10 year old but you should watch it first. I would warn children beforehand about it being an intense film and at that age, you can talk about drinking and cursing and adult things and set it in context. But I can’t wait to show it to my daughters. I think they will love Hushpuppy and understand how scared she was and how strong she is. I think they will understand her longing for her mother and her love for her father. I think they will get it and be moved.