One more to be enchanted by Hushpuppy
All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating and squirting, and talking to each other the ways I can’t understand. Most of the time they probably be saying: I’m hungry, or I gotta poop.”
[listening to bird’s heartbeat]
But sometimes they be talkin’ in codes.”
Those words from Hushpuppy in the beginning of Beasts of the Southern Wild was all it took to win me over.
The combination was irresistible. First we had this young girl, the force of nature, making my childhood hero Pippi Longstocking appear pale in comparison. Then we had the camera, which in an inexplicable way turns what I’d consider a horrible piece of junk land – a swamp full of trash – into something that would qualify for National Geographic: an endangered biotope that should be protected. And then there was this voiceover: poetic, cute and insightful in equal measures.
So what if six year olds don’t speak that way, don’t come up with such words of wisdom? You don’t see giant boar from the ice age roaming around either. I wanted to stay in this world of magic, following Hushpuppy as she explored it and found ways to survive under circumstances where I wouldn’t last a minute.
Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in a place called Bathtub, a delta in the south, where a little group of people live in extreme poverty. It’s not an environment where I’d like any child to grow up, obviously neglected and forced to take a far greater responsibility that she should have to. But somehow Hushpuppy gets by, thanks to her seemingly unbreakable fighting spirit and an ability to slip into her own realm of imagination when the reality gets too hard to comprehend or handle. Things go from bad to worse as the delta is run over by flood of apocalyptic dimensions, while Hushpuppy’s father turns ill.
I won’t be wordy about this film, since it’s been written about so much already that it runs the risk to be hugged to death. There are a few critical voices though, and I want to address one of the objections I’ve heard: that it idealizes poverty, providing a dated view on the “happy savage”.
While I can understand this point of view, I don’t share it. There’s never any doubt about that the lifestyle in the swamp isn’t sustainable either for the people or the environment and the fact that Hushpuppy’s father is a drunkard who beats her isn’t shrugged away easily. The fact that those people still manage to find some love and laughter and enjoyment in their life says something about the human spirit rather than suggesting that everyone would be better off living in shacks eating dog food.
If I would remark on something, it’s rather that it’s a little bit eventless. On the other hand: if I’m completely honest I thought the film was at its best when we saw Hushpuppy strolling around, talking to the animals, cooking or having arguments with her father, occasionally interrupted by cleaver statements. The “story” felt less significant.
Eventless or not, Beasts of the Southern Wild had my full attention to the very end and the spirit of it comes back to me if I close my eyes. I can’t put my finger on what it is that it conveys, but I think it’s something about what it means to be alive and to be a part of the world.
To paraphrase one of the voiceovers:
When it all goes quiet I see Hushpuppy right here. I see that like her I’m a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin US 2012) My rating: 4/5