You guys! You gotta see this movie.
I’ve said this before and will say it again: New Orleans is the only city besides New York to ever win my heart. There’s something different about that place — something indefinable and liminal. Everyone who lives there for long feels it. I’ve tried to capture that sense of magic myself in fiction, and I don’t know if I succeeded because it’s hard to encapsulate something like that in a narrative. I’ve seen lots of other books and visual media attempt this and fail. But now, for the first time in quite a while, I’ve just seen another film which does the trick.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is overtly fantastical. The story is framed through the imagination of Hushpuppy, a little girl growing up in “the Bathtub”, a poor community that has literally been forgotten and left to drown by the rest of the world. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the residents of this community band together and seek solace in laughter, but Hushpuppy knows that something is out of true. What’s happening to the Bathtub is merely a symptom of greater malaise, and she sets forth on an epic quest — both real and imagined — to save the father she loves more than anything in the world.
This movie is beautiful and terrible — and both of those adjectives are good. The cinematography is just about perfect, capturing everything from the ethereal beauty of a bayou sunset to the raw ugly poverty in which the residents of the Bathtub live. You can see why the people of the Bathtub mistrust authority, because authority comes with stark white uniforms and walks down sterile blue-tinged hallways and destroys souls with efficient, industrialized detachment. You feel the power of Hushpuppy’s fears because they come thundering down from the Arctic; you taste her hopes, sucked down like sweet boiled crawfish. The actors are all unknowns, but they take the script and beast it (see the film). Such was this movie’s power that I started crying at about the halfway mark, and I just. Didn’t. Stop. Even though I was laughing at the same time.
It’s not without problems. Even though the film fictionalizes the forgotten poor of the Gulf Coast, I’ve met enough of the real poor there to know that what’s depicted here edges closer than I like to caricature at times. The denizens of the Bathtub choose to stay through the hurricane, for example, and the film treats this overtly as sheer stubbornness and pride — but implicit is the fact that these people have nowhere to go, and they’re too poor to get there even if they did. I can easily see some filmgoers missing the implicit message and using the overt to (yet again) vilify the people who couldn’t move out of Katrina’s path. Also, the filmmakers attempt a few metaphors that fail, sometimes badly. All the women in the film, including Hushpuppy, are treated as innately magical, for example. This is something that happens over and over in depictions of bayou folk, especially women, and it annoys me — but I’m willing to forgive it in this case because the film didn’t run afoul of any of the other usual stereotypes (e.g., Scary Voodoo People). It also helps that these “magical negresses” were balanced out by their realism in other respects.
But all of these are quibbles about a film that is, save for one or two strokes, a masterpiece. So go see it. But hydrate first, OK? Your eyes will thank you.