What 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Really Says

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.

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Fox Searchlight

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.

The suggestion is that the city is motivated by self-interest—a desire to quell a threat rather than to care for the smaller or sweeter among them. It's no wonder that the residents of the Bathtub are distrustful of everyone and everything they associate with it, even the institutions that could improve their material condition. And so Hushpuppy struggles to escape from the hospital and return to, not run from, her humble origins, which she views as a crucial part of her identity. "Millions of years from now when kids go to school, they'll know that once there was a girl called Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub," she proudly declares, her voice bleeding into the film's triumphant score.

It certainly would have been less challenging for Zeitlin to situate his audience in the universe of the film via the city. All theatergoers have preconceived notions about parenting and poverty, sickness and squalor. The destitution of the Bathtub naturally evokes a visceral reaction. When I saw the movie, for example, the unsanitary cooking and consumption of meat in its early scenes were met with audible cries of disgust. But the fact that audience members later cringed at the sterility of a well-lit hospital stands as a testament to the power of the film. After all, we consume art to see the world from a new perspective.

But the film's detractors have mistaken sympathy for advocacy. "In actual developing countries, one of the first things that rural citizens demand ... is adequate health care and hospitals," Candaele writes, "But in Zeitlin's film world these basic features of modern life ... are represented as oppressive institutions, places we need to escape." No sane person would react to Beasts by deciding that healthcare is unnecessary or evil. But an open-minded viewer should leave the film with a greater understanding of the way that complicated political histories can make people distrustful of institutions widely perceived as universal goods.

Candaele sees Hushpuppy's resistance against the city as an attack on the institutions themselves. A more nuanced interpretation is that an effective institution must treat the people it hopes to serve with compassion and sensitivity. Candaele assumes the impoverished are simply waiting to be rescued—or worse, tamed. What is it, precisely, that offends him so? That they instead have the gall to be proud of where they're from? In a nation where most of the people born into poverty will die there, it's hateful to criticize a film on the grounds that it portrays a poor community as too vibrant or too joyous. The most striking aspect of Beasts is how beautifully it captures the wondrous quality the world possesses for imaginative children. Fortunately for its Hushpuppys, this magic is not confined to cities in the distance.