Beasts of the Southern Wild- “They think we’re all gonna drown down here. But we ain’t going nowhere”

 

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It’s really hard to critique a movie in any short period of time after seeing it for a couple of reasons. First, it’s somewhat unfair of us armchair critics to sit here and pass judgment on something countless filmmakers worked on for months and months after having thought about it for just a couple of days. It’s also difficult because of how much information there is to process. In any film you could completely miss underlying themes, camera movement, lighting, good roles, anything you could like about a film you could completely miss because of how much there is to think about when watching the movie. And the truth is, the first time I watch a movie I don’t want to think about it. I just want to let it flow over me and see how it affects me at a base level before I start turnin’ my gears. And I have to say, at a base level, Beast of the Southern Wild affected me greatly.

Now, when you have nine Best Picture nominees and they are all good as they are, it usually comes down to taste when deciding which one you hope to win. Did you have a higher connection with a movie that’s more emotional  like Les Miserables, or did you like light-hearted down to Earth style of Silver Linings Playbook? Did you indulge in Tarantino’s revenge fantasy or did you prefer Daniel Day-Lewis’ spot on Lincoln impression? Do you like the stylized truthiness of Argo and Zero Dark or the stylized fantasy of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Life of Pi? The answer to these questions depend on base differences in everyone. While I can try and look at films objectively and appreciate them from a technical stance, which movies become my personal favorites will depend on the kind of emotional connection I make to that movie and that’s a very subjective thing. With all that said, if I were judge of the world Kanye West would win a Grammy every year he’s alive and Beasts of the Southern Wild would win Best Picture this year.

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Bold statement, I know. Not a lot of people are rooting for this movie besides hipsters who like to live in the minority while being in the majority, like me. To explain why I liked this film so much I need to first explain what I think a movie should do since there seems to be some disagreement as of late. This is, once again, filed under my personal opinion of what a movie’s purpose is beyond entertainment, though we all know entertainment is the first and foremost reason movies exist. But how are we entertained? It not only has to do with emotional connection, but drama at it’s source. We want to see compelling characters in driving plots. We want to think about nothing else except what’s on screen and what could possibly be coming next. Depending on how well the characters take us through the narrative guides how well we connect with the story and ultimately how it affects us. To me, movies like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are held down from being ultimately satisfying because they want to mirror reality, and while mirroring reality is an achievement in its own in cinema, I personally prefer movies that aren’t held down by facts or put under a microscope because they claim to use them. Really all I’m saying is I prefer fiction to docudrama.

Let’s start at the beginning of the film, it starts off very strongly. Immediately you can tell we are in a world other than our own. I mean, it’s the same world as ours. It takes place in present day and in America. The protagonist of this movie lives on the outskirts of New Orleans on a small island that might as well me a floating plot of land in the ocean. Immediately we can tell their lifestyle is different from what we’re used to. It’s a mix of Cajun friendliness, local rules, and a hint of survival. They see themselves as outsiders, and they take great pride in it. This is established immediately, and I think it is one of the more charming aspects of this film. A lot of the actors were New Orleans locals and you can feel that vibe. You can feel their pride for their slice of heaven, living off of the ocean. In the opening scene we are introduced to Hushpuppy, the adorable and surprising little girl we follow throughout the movie. She loves animals and practically lives among them, sleeping in a shack separate from her father. Through her opening monologue two things are very clear.

1. She has a passion for animals and how the world is able to fit them all together.

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2. The people of The Bathtub, where the film takes place, are a good time loving people living the lives we all wish we could live sometimes. Hushpuppy says, “The bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world” as the residents of Bathtub herd to the street for a makeshift parade, waving liquor bottles at each other while singing and playing instruments.

And with that opening I was hooked. There may be some points in this film where it seems to lose focus or go off course, but the people of The Bathtub fascinated me and made me jealous and hateful to myself for living near a McDonald’s and having a job in a law firm. They made me think about what I would have been like if I was brought up there. How much more fun, more work my life would have been. It’s a movie that created a new reality for you, like Star Wars or Bladerunner might, yet it takes place right here and now. I loved how different this film managed to be without having to go into the past or zoom into the future, without even having to be set in an alternate reality. It zoomed in on a life we have never seen before even though it’s out there to see. Post-Katrina New Orleans is a very real place, and the world as we know it is shifting. It is in that tectonic shift that this film takes place, somewhere between society and wilderness.

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I have already accepted that this movie will probably not win Best Picture, ecstatic as I would be if it did. And I think I can pinpoint a few things that might keep it from being the kind of widely accepted film that everyone would enjoy, and even maybe some things that may put you off of the film.

The first thing to mention are the fantastical elements. It would be unfair to say that some people don’t vibe with fantastical elements when someone who dislikes this movie might enjoy Lord of the Rings or Ghibli films. The difference is, as I said earlier, that this movie is based in reality. A lot of people have problems with movies that are based in our reality yet have fantastical elements they can’t explain. For example, and this is heading into spoiler territory real fast, there was a lot of mention about the ending when I started reading reviews of Beasts. Not everyone was confused by it or put off by it, but a lot of reviews at least mentioned the fact that the community was able to see the Antiochs at the end as well as Hushpuppy, which was confusing because the whole movie everyone had assumed it was just her imagination running wild. See, whenever some people are presented with a story that takes place in our reality, they have the tendency to make everything fit in our reality, so it’s much easier for people to say that this movie takes place here and now and the Antiochs are in her head than it is to say that this movie takes place here and now except in the movie here and now Antiochs exist again. I have never understood that, maybe because logic and films has never gone hand in hand to me. Logic should be used in the making of a film, but when it comes to watching the screen what really matters to me is how the character moves me through the story and the connection I make. So while I loved the subtle thematic overtones and fantastical elements, I can see it being a point that keeps this movie from being loved by everyone and successful.

The movie’s narrative is also a little shaky. This didn’t bother me as much as it normally would because I was enjoying the visuals and I really was having such a fantastic time watching Hushpuppy be thrust into responsibility and survival, but it is worth noting. There are times in the movie where you’re not really sure where it is going. The narrative is incredibly strong for the first 45 minutes, but for the last half it kind of trails off and even thought it all comes back for an uplifting, inspirational, and connecting ending there may be a moment where you think, “Was that last half an hour really necessary?” The answer is yes, but it’s not the kind of necessary that presents itself right on screen. It’s not the kind of necessary where The Joker is telling you you have to save Rachel or Harvey, or the kind of necessary where if Marty doesn’t play Johnny B. Goode right then and there then he won’t exist. It’s the kind of necessary that provides a beautiful ending moment and upon reflection can connect you to the story in a more emotional way. It’s the kind of necessary that we don’t find so necessary in film anymore. That said, I could see people saying the film was slow or lost focus at a certain point, which wouldn’t be an incorrect critique but more of a personal impression. I feel that the last 45 minutes built up to the ending in a way that created a beautiful climax. As Hushpuppy looked her problems in the eye, the questionable health of her father, her ability to brave the elements and survive, and icebergs melting and drowning her home, her problems saw the strong young girl they were dealing with and backed down. Had she run from them, they would have chased her down and mauled her, but Hushpuppy was taught to be tough and look her problems dead in the eye with ferocity by her drunk father and the climax of those life lessons at the end was, legitimately, the most powerful emotional reaction I’ve had all Oscar season. Quvenzhane Wallis did an amazing job in this film and really deserves that nomination. To see such an intense performance from a six year old seriously made me reconsider my life and what I’ve achieved so far. She was strong, smart, insightful, and fearless. She definitely gives Maya and Tiffany a run for their money for best female protagonist of the year. I mean, mostly what I’d heard about this movie before seeing it was how impressive the little girl was and I was still floored. I really cannot say enough how much I enjoyed watching Hushpuppy and having her to guide me through the story.

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In the end, I’m willing to admit my adoration for this film may have to do with my personal tastes in film as well as my satisfaction to see a film doing things that it knows aren’t the most popular choices to garner wide audience appeal, but I would still recommend it to anyone who asked.

-CJ

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