The part of me that wanted to believe in Beasts of the Southern Wild was the same part that wants to believe in Santa Claus. I think it’s marvelous to see movies that bring their cameras to subsets of the population that don’t even have movies; and it’s more inspiriting still to see them get the recognition that this one has. That said, I’m disappointed to see such a subject underserved by a lack of imagination. The film is “mythic” by fiat–a sacrifice offered up by way of bashed fish, beating hearts, and bad poetry. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) screams her nine-year-old head off frequently enough to be fodder for a supercut, and I take that to be emblematic. It isn’t a howl; it’s the equivalent of a dog tagging a fire hydrant. But it’s also a sign of life–a declaration of it.
The film is set in the “Bathtub,” a little island floating tenuously beneath Louisiana. We learn just how tenuously, early on, when Hushpuppy’s teacher works climate change into her lesson plan, using tattoos of cave paintings as visual aides. (It’s the only sensible alternative to PowerPoint.) It’s a stretch to say that Hushpuppy lives with her widowed father Wink (Dwight Henry); they’re split between two dilapidated trailers on a stretch of swampland. The film is about their hot-cold relationship. Though he won’t tell her outright, Wink is dying of what appears to be sickle-cell anemia, which is meant to excuse his abuse and neglect of Hushpuppy because he’s toughening her up to face the world alone. The problem is that it’s impossible to separate his worldview from that of the director, Benh Zeitlin (who wrote the screenplay with Lucy Ailbar, on whose play Beasts is based). After a hurricane, FEMA comes to the Bathtub’s rescue, and Wink stages a prison break from the white walls of their hospital; he puts his daughter on a bus and closes the door behind her. It doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind that she could have a good life among those who I’d hesitate to call “more civilized,” but who, at the very least, accept modernity. We’re meant, it seems, to venerate him for wresting her from modernity’s clutches; and yet we’re constantly reminded that after one raindrop too many, the Bathtub will go down the drain. Her survival is secondary to his pride.
This is one of those movies that makes a critic like myself, whose skin is the color of a celebrity’s tooth, feel like a dick when justifying his opinions to friends better endowed with melanin. Beasts is not duplicitous like Django Unchained is, Tarantino being a demonstration of the kind of huckster Billy Wilder decried in Ace in the Hole; but this is “magical realism” in the sense that Slumdog Millionaire was a “fairy tale.” Meaning: People group it in with magical realism despite the scarcity of realism or even any magic (the aurochs fantasy being the only exception I can think of) because it’s the polite way of engaging with an eccentric work about a black family that was made by white artists. Zeitlin’s the son of folklorists, and I can see that lineage in the film–including where it breaks down. Beasts skims off the top of folktales, netting archetypes at the expense of local color or detail. Screenwriters have applied the same hero’s-journey template to their mediocre blockbusters for years. What’s intended as a blueprint ends up a shortcut: Their themes are “primal,” so they’re taken for granted. Subtext floats to the surface like creativity’s corpse. Add a setting to match your themes, and you’ve fished yourself up the “world soul.”