In this year's Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin takes us into an isolated community colloquially known as The Bathtub. It's a small mound of swampy thicket isolated from the mainland by a levee; although Zeitlin makes it a point never to tip his hand, The Bathtub appears to be just off the coast of Louisiana. Just in sight of this semi-primitive band of dilapidated clapboard, free-roaming chickens and semi-communal living is the highway; just over the levee we see smoke-belching refineries. Wink (Dwight Henry), father to 6-year-old protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) points over Chevron-way, remarking, "Ain't that ugly."
The divide is in place. The Bathtub is Zeitlin's enclave of noble savages, holed up against the encroachment of civilization. Wink's friends, Jean Battiste (Levy Easterly) and Little Jo (Pamela Harper), run a general store in the 'Tub, but it's more of a meeting place than a business concern. Alas, Biblical Weather has its way with this supposed paradise, when a massive hurricane flattens and floods the island. Obviously much has been made of Beasts' visual and mythical similarities to Katrina, but the film dips into this well of cultural signification without drawing any specific material conclusions. The desolation of The Bathtub is "man-made," but no more so than The Bathtub itself.
If we were to run with the "bathtub" metaphor for a moment, Zeitlin has a particularly handy system for draining any possible political murk from his well-appointed swamp. Beasts is narrated throughout by Hushpuppy, with a soft-spoken, poetic perspective that is preternaturally aware of complexity and subtext. (Wallis' voiceover has been rightly compared to Terrence Malick's work; Robert Flaherty's landmark docudrama Louisiana Story is another key precedent.) However, when Zeitlin's narrative structure demands it, Hushpuppy is age-appropriately naïve. She believes that her private misbehavior brought the storm upon the world as punishment, and that the titular prehistoric giants roam the earth. In this magical land, why not?
The key image in Fox Searchlight's publicity has been an image of Hushpuppy walking in the dark of night, illuminated by dazzling colored sparklers. This has been chosen, I think, because it's so atypical. For a film so insistent on the raw force of nature, Beasts seldom attempts to capture the trees, the mud, the slicing sheets of rain. Instead, Zeitlin employs choppy handheld camerawork that moves things along but is inadequate for putting the elemental across as more than just a received idea. When Beasts does bust through with wildness, it's only by negation, and at its most ideologically specious moment. After forced government evacuation, the 'Tubbers are held prisoner in a cold, white facility representing "civilization" as total bureaucratic callousness. (Is this a conservative stance against social services? Naturally, Zeitlin hedges all bets by refracting this Kafkaesque nightmare through Hushpuppy's tiny point of view.)
But one thing is rather certain about Beasts of the Southern Wild in terms of how it depicts the culture of The Bathtub: This is a man's world. Wink makes a point that Hushpuppy's mother (who may or may not be be "The Cook," played by Jovan Hathaway) fled the Bathtub because she couldn't hack it. Oddly enough, all the kids in The Bathtub are girls, but their teacher, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), warns them that ecological disaster is imperiling their ancestral home. "So you can't be pussies," she tells the young girls. Later on, in a moment of crisis, Hushpuppy says with equanimity and resolve that she "won't be a pussy."
Likewise, in a post-storm seafood feast, a neighbor tries to show the girl how to crack open a crab with a tool. Wink howls in protest. "Beast it!" he insists. By this he means that Hushpuppy should break open the shell with her bare hands, like an animal. Soon everyone at the table is chanting "Beast it! Beast it!" and beast it she does. Upon splitting the crab in her hands, Hushpuppy mounts the table in triumph, flexing her muscles. She has proven herself to be a worthy heir to whatever's left of The Bathtub; later on she'll look the giant hulking mammoth of her fears square in the eye. Clearly she is now the beast, and no "pussy." But I find myself taking issue with Zeitlin's vision. Whether this nowhere-land is post-Katrina NOLA or simply the remnants of our tattered civilization, it's worth remembering that so-called "pussies," of every conceivable gender, save our drowning world in all manner of ways, every day.
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