Watching Ourselves and the Oscars – Part 2

Why Beasts of the Southern Wild should have won Best Picture

By Craig Joseph

(Quvenzhzé Wallis)

When Tim proposed that we each post about the film we feel should have won Best Picture, I realized I was woefully behind in my current movie viewing.  But who needs to spend $25 on a ticket and popcorn when I have free nostalgic movie dates with a hunky Minnesotan each week from my own sofa?  Thus, I sped to the store and grabbed the first nominated film I could (I had seen NONE of them), so, by default, Beasts of the Southern Wild gets my vote.  And let’s be honest.  Did anyone expect me to choose other than the low-budget art film with a child star whom no one’s heard of?  C’mon.  Thankfully, I’m spared embarrassment; it didn’t suck.

Most impressive is how the film reflects on the term “beasts,” serving up an extended metaphor, visually and conceptually.  Initially, we’re inclined to believe that “beasts” refers to animals with whom Hushpuppy connects in her bayou community; a coterie of creatures inhabits the impoverished backdrop of her life, yet the ways she examines, handles and interacts with them suggest a compassion for and connection with nature.  In fact, this kinship is powerfully underscored by editing that links her outburst against her drunken father, Wink, with the unleashing of a terrific storm that destroys the community – and liberates more fearsome beasts, the aurochs, who speed toward the Bathtub with fierce intentions.  With little dialogue, actress Quvenzhane Wallis conveys both Hushpuppy’s wonder and horror at the notion that she has these creatures and elements at her behest.

An extended central sequence encourages us to see the denizens of the Bathtub as “beasts.”  Wink is certainly no charmer; he likes his drink and is borderline abusive, verbally and physically, to Hushpuppy.  His closest neighbors recover from the flood by drinking themselves into a stupor and almost drowning.  No one seems to mind the squalor in which they live, and they take an almost foolish pride in living on the “wrong side of the levee,” which they – like savages – bomb to draw salt water away from their homes.

Just as we’re hoping Hushpuppy escapes, though, the Bathtubbers are evacuated to a clinic and subjected to betterment and socialization efforts.  In a brilliant sequence, we’re left wondering if the good, clean folks from the big city aren’t the most bestial and brutal we’ve encountered yet, removing Hushpuppy and kin from a life of harmony with nature, interdependence and community spirit – squalid though it may be – and engendering conformity, disconnection and muted spirits.

The film comes full circle with Hushpuppy – escaped from the clinic – facing down the aurochs, who’ve arrived at the Bathtub.  Again, her connection with beasts serves her well, as she telepathically intuits that they mean her people no ill.

It’s a beautiful scene of peace, coming as it does only minutes after the two human communities fail so miserably in their attempts to understand and live alongside harmoniously.  In this way, the film poses interesting questions (not without resonances to Hurricane Katrina) about our obligations to the natural world and one another.  Where do our efforts at civility actually make us less human?  Is there a wildness to human nature that actually enables us to live more in accordance with the way we’re designed to live?  And where is the line between being a human and devolving into a beast?

beasts of the southern wild

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