I watched the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (nominated for four Academy Awards this year, including Best Picture and Best Actress for its then-6-year-old star) last night for a second time. It doesn’t get any easier with further viewings. In fact, I think the film devastated me even more the second time around — but I mean “devastated” in a good way, honestly. I love movies that drive me to the very edge of discomfort and that get under my skin, but that also are so very filled through and through with humanity that I can’t look away. I’m drawn in completely, relating to every moment, feeling them alongside the characters, my heart breaking with theirs.
Don’t worry — if you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give anything away here. But, please, see it! It’s magical.
A loose description — the movie’s set in a fictionalized south Louisiana bayou community (the ”Bathtub”) that’s outside New Orleans and outside the levees. The main characters are a little girl named Hushpuppy, and her father, Wink. The film’s about their unique life together, about the friends they surround themselves with, about their relationship to the land and to the water, and yes, about a hurricane barreling their way. There are elements of “magical realism” and whimsy here, just as there are hard truths and even harder scenes to watch and digest. This is not an easy film in many ways. But to me, those are always the best kind, the most representative of the world out there.
None of this is to say it’s not a beautiful movie, because it is. It’s full of life, and laughs, and love. There is an intangible quality to it, such a distinct feeling of people and place. It transports you.
I saw it first in a local movie theater here in New Orleans last summer, and after the movie was over, and the credits started to roll, not a soul in the crowded theater moved. No one dared break the spell. Every last person there stayed in their seats until the last name moved across the screen. (I’ve only had an experience in a theater like that one other time, and it’s a movie that affects me — still – in much the same way that this one did. That movie was the Italian WWII/Holocaust film, “Life is Beautiful.”)
That a 29-year-old director making his first feature film, and casting two non-actors in his lead roles, could achieve something like ”Beasts” is just remarkable. I don’t know that they’ll beat out any of the Hollywood heavies at this year’s Oscars, but who cares. This movie deserves the press and attention it’s getting. It was locally already a big deal, even before it came out. Everyone I knew was so intrigued by it. I’m happy, now, that the rest of the country is catching on.
One nitpick I have with a review I saw from a major newspaper up North — the reviewer said she “had some problems” with the film, including the way it “glamorized poverty.” That that is what she took from this movie is so incredibly misguided to me, and so elitist, too. The people depicted in the movie aren’t rich in any conventional way, in any way that most of our country could identify. No, they aren’t saving for retirement in their 401(k)s. Their kids aren’t attending fancy private schools (the better to avoid those awful poor people in the cities). They aren’t driven by an acquisitive nature, on the prowl for the senseless stuff they’re going to buy next, despite the fact that they don’t need it.
The people depicted in ”Beasts” are rich in experiences, though. In life. And yes, despite the cliché, in love. They are happy. Happy in themselves, happy with their lives, happy with their communities, and intimately tied to and happy with where they are from. They are one with the land under their feet, the sky above, and the water all around. That’s unusual in this day and age, when so much of our country looks like the same stupid strip mall ad nauseum.
The way many people live down here in New Orleans is just like this — and that’s part of why I love the city. Once you get out into those bayou communities, it’s even more pronounced. But just because it’s different, or you don’t live that way and don’t understand why someone would want to, that’s no reason to accuse the film makers of presenting something false. That was not their intention, I’m sure of it.
Many people down here understand how short and precious life is, and consequently, they’re going to enjoy it — every day — to the fullest. There’s an appreciation for the fact that you’ve got today, but aren’t guaranteed tomorrow (see: hurricanes, oil spills, plain old violence, you name it).
If that’s “glamorized poverty,” then sign me up. I like to think of it more as focusing on what matters: the people around you, the fact that you love them and they love you, and that you recognize and are grateful for all the little blessings bestowed upon you. This attitude should be celebrated, not dismissed.
I’ll be watching the Oscars this Sunday and rooting all the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” folks on. Here’s to hoping they’ve got the good juju!