Some critics say the indie sensation glorifies poverty and recklessness, but it's actually a nuanced look at how peoples' worldviews are tied to where they came from.
Before filming Beasts of the Southern Wild, the acclaimed Sundance hit now making its way through theaters nationwide, director Benh Zeitlin asked lead actress Quvenzhane Wallis how she might go about fixing a post-apocalyptic world.
"Well, I would always brush my teeth," Wallis, then five years old, responded. "I would listen to my parents."
Her words resonated with Zeitlin. "That became a real principle of the character [Hushpuppy]," he later NPR. "That somehow you can restore order to the universe through your behavior."
Some people, though, apparently didn't get the message. Last week, Salon reprinted a widely talked-about piece from the Los Angeles Review of Books with the laughable headline "Hushpuppy, anarchist antihero?" In it, critic Kelly Candaele calls the Beasts "dangerously hedonist—an apolitical, individualist hedonism with a tacked-on ending suggesting an incipient social movement." Candaele's concerns are so ridiculous one almost hopes, for his sake, he is being sensationalist rather than obtuse. The movie, which tells a surreal tale of a bayou community known as "the Bathtub" threatened with destruction, hardly celebrates reckless hedonism. Rather, it forces us to try on a new worldview in the hopes that we permanently expand our own.
In pop culture, poverty in America is commonly portrayed as unnecessarily hopeless or bleak. A protagonist's origins, when humble, are almost exclusively presented as something to escape, an obstacle on her or his road to self-fulfillment. Zeitlin strongly resists this portrayal. While he doesn't gloss over bleaker aspects of Beasts' run-down setting, he certainly places them in context. Hushpuppy lives with her father, who is often drunk, abusive, or neglectful, but who cares for her deeply. The closest thing she has to a maternal figure is her schoolteacher, an erratic woman who imparts the values of the Bathtub to her captivated classroom. "This is the most important thing," she tells a group of attentive pupils in one of Beasts's few heavy-handed moments. "That y'all learn to take care of the things that are smaller and sweeter than you."
This context proves central to the plot. The Bathtubbians' repeated rejection of the rules and institutions of a distant, industrialized town might seem anarchic without it. But their actions are consistent with the history Zeitlin presents. Early in the film, viewers learn that the Bathtub was formed when this far-off city erected a levee, barring it from what audience members would readily identify as "civilization." The film never adopts the perspective of the city dwellers. Instead, it tells its story solely through the eyes of Bathtub residents, who view the faraway factories with a mix of contempt and fear. When the bayou is hit with a devastating storm, decimating its population, the city does not provide assistance. Only when Bathtubbians bomb the levee to alleviate post-storm flooding does it intervene, demanding that Hushpuppy's people evacuate the region, and imprisoning them in a hospital.