Sweaty Swamp Hobos Drinking Miller High Life and Eating Mudbugs...

The first time I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), I was taken with the stylish framing and the intriguing mythology of the aurochs. After watching it again yesterday with my daughter, it left me with much stronger feelings about the things it chooses to show and say.

My daughter asked me why Hushpuppy isn't in school, and telling her that life in the bathtub was like perpetual summer just didn't seem like a reasonable response. The lack of access to a formal education is just one of the many abuses this poor girl must suffer--some physical, some emotional, and some mental.

The more we watched, the more the trope of the noble savage emerged so explicitly. I did a little checking around and found some good scholarship that pretty much mirrors my most recent reaction to the film. Would Hushpuppy choose this life for herself if she knew what life was like on the other side of the levy?

I doubt it, but filmmaker Benh Zeitlin sure seemed comfortable romanticizing a bunch of swaying drunkards living in filthy shanties. At one point, Hushpuppy's father, Wink, decries the people getting their food in grocery stores.


That scene where he shouts at Hushpuppy to "beast it" when she shatters the crab and slurps it down is the film's most memorable anti-mainstream culture moment. It's effective, in the sense that it can definitely be taken as a father attempting a real teaching moment with his daughter as he lurches toward his death. But it's also the most overt denial of the things his little girl needs most: access to decent food, a clean environment, healthcare, and schooling. 

I still like the movie, generally. It's visually very pretty to look at, and I liked the way it was shot (both technically, and with the collective efforts of the filmmakers). For a first feature, Zeitlin did a nice job. But the way he depicts the "Southern Wild" was more than deplorable on second look. These people were slack-jawed yokels.

Here's to hoping that Hushpuppy found a way off that water-drenched levy after they sent Wink to the great beyond and that she found a set of clean clothes and a desk in a school that will allow her a better chance to capitalize on that imagination and vocabulary of hers...   

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