Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pass the Popcorn: Beasts of the Southern Wild

When I was a kid, my family went to movies together all the time. We stayed mostly on Manhattan's upper westside (which was nowhere near as chic and expensive as it is today). We went to theatres that aren't there anymore: Cinema Studios, the Embassy, the Regency and Loews 83rd. Actually, Loews 83rd is still there but it's now AMC 84th. Huh?

The times they are a'changin'.

Anyway, my husband, teen daughter and I very rarely go to the movies. My husband's not really a movie guy and my daughter is far too busy with her horses and her friends and her horses and her schoolwork and her horses. (Did I mention her horses?) So I was very excited when they both expressed interest in seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild.

A number of people had asked if I'd seen "that New Orleans movie." The movie is not, however, set in NOLA. It takes place in a bayou that time has forgotten, called "the Bathtub." An enormous levee separates the Bathtub from civilization, and when a storm comes (we can assume it's Katrina, but it's never really specified), that levee protects the rest of the world, while the Bathtub disappears under flood waters.

The heroine is a little girl nicknamed Hushpuppy. She lives with her alcoholic daddy, a fat pig and some chickens in a trailer built on stilts. Together, they fish from an ark made out of a derelict pickup truck bed. Life in the Bathtub is harsh but joyous at the same time. They live in such squalor that it's hard to believe the story takes place in this country. And yet, they feast on crabs and crawfish, drink to excess and celebrate their own version of a back country Mardi Gras all the time.

Despite what appears to be a rather spotty education, Hushpuppy is a deep thinker. She is keenly aware of her place in the universe. When she closes her eyes, she can see all of nature and she speaks as an underage conservationist. 

"The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted."

After the flood, Hushpuppy, her father and a ragtag group of survivors band together to try and save the Bathtub. They are "rescued" and brought to a relief station, but they stage an escape and return to the Bathtub. Realizing that her father is very ill, Hushpuppy sets off with a handful of orphaned girls to try and find her mother. Their journey takes them to a paddleboat cathouse where they find mother-love in the arms of prostitutes and holy communion in a supper of fried alligator. After staring down the dreaded aurochs (prehistoric beasts brought back to life because the arctic circle is melting), Hushpuppy brings some of the sacred gator back to her dying father before sending him off to his next life.

If this all sounds rather mythic, it absolutely is. Hushpuppy's story is very much a hero's adventure; she is a tiny little Odysseus, facing obstacles along her way, but determined to get home.

The movie was extraordinary. Every actor, from Dwight Henry as the father to Gina Montana as the teacher to tiny little Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, was just fantastic. In terms of evoking a time and place, you could practically smell and taste the Bathtub as well as see it.

Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild was thought-provoking for us. As a comfortable, well-fed, fully-clothed family, we were struck by how little Hushpuppy had and how little she needed. It was particularly interesting to watch the scenes in the relief station. While doctors tried to address her father's dire condition, someone had cleaned Hushpuppy up, put her in a tidy dress, and combed her hair (no mean feat, be assured). On the one hand, we thought she was better off. On the other hand, we cheered for her when her daddy "busted her out" and they returned to the Bathtub.

As we drove home, stopping for some fried fish and chips along the way. My husband, daughter and I compared notes. I definitely liked Beasts of the Southern Wild more than they did. I think they thought it was a little too weird. I thought it was weird too.

Weird in a most wonderful way.

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