Monday, July 30, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

My daughter Eloise is growing. I write this on the day she turns six months old. Half a year ago, a tiny person emerged from the womb with wide open eyes, curious about the world she had just entered. Those same eyes have remained open and inquisitive, recently extending their curiosity to her fingertips as they grasp anything that crosses the threshold of her reach. She is strong both inside and out, and her voice is full of passion and authority. She's quite a handful, really. I wouldn't have it any other way. The name Eloise means "famous warrior."

In the opening moments of one of the best reviewed films of the year, we are introduced to another tiny warrior. Her name is Hushpuppy, and she lives in the Bathtub with her father, Wink. They live in dilapidated trailers, surrounded by pigs and chickens and water. Lots of water. The Bathtub rests at the edge of the world in the Mississippi River delta, separated by the levees and walls encircling New Orleans. Hushpuppy narrates, describing the Bathtub as the prettiest place on Earth. "The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world," she says. It is a tiny community living by its own set of laws and values in the geographical amalgam of land and sea.

The relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink is unorthodox and complex. The intrepid 6-year-old lives in a separate trailer from her father, who seems to spend much of his waking time drinking, barbecuing, and celebrating with the locale. When he doesn't return home for a few days, Hushpuppy quietly fends for herself. Upon his return, something is different. Something isn't right; something has broken inside of him. "Sometimes you can break something so bad, that it can't get put back together," narrates Hushpuppy. This brokenness stretches beyonds Wink; a storm is coming, and the young warrior must learn to navigate its dangerous waters. This storm--physical, emotional, allegorical--is filled with surprises as it tests Hushpuppy's resilience.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is whimsical in tone, even magical. Filmed in the grainy and shaky realism of handheld cameras, it felt like a poetically quirky combination of early David Gordon Green mixed with the fantastic animated worlds of Hayao Miyazaki. The center of this remarkable little film is Quvenzhan√© Wallis, the 5-year-old who wonderfully portrays Hushpuppy with a sincerity and maturity beyond her years. The performance is incredibly strong for someone so young and so new to the medium of film. She listens to the heartbeats of animals. She waxes poetically about life and love and the universe. She is childlike curiosity and strength embodied. 

The Bathtub is a beautiful picture of community, joy, and celebration. The storm that it suffers only reveals the hope set in the hearts of its inhabitants. But I had this sinking sense that Wink's hope is a false one, an optimistic denial of the reality before him rather than a hope-after-suffering joy. There is a fine line between confidence and conceit, and Wink dances this line so often that it is difficult to tell whether he is a benevolent father trying to guide his daughter or a delusional abuser leading her astray. This, perhaps, is my greatest fault with Beasts; the characters surrounding Hushpuppy are so complex and mixed that it's difficult to know who is truly on her side. Maybe that's the audience's journey too. Maybe we are traveling alongside Hushpuppy as she learns how to deal with loss--her home, her loved ones, her innocence. "Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run," she says. Hushpuppy isn't one for running away.

Though she is young, Eloise will experience loss in her lifetime. As her father, I hope to be her companion and guide as she navigates the pain of loss. As she loses her childhood innocence through the years, I pray she never loses her curiosity and her strength. The world needs her voice, her spirit. "I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right," says Hushpuppy. So are you, Eloise. If we put the greatest value on the elements that are the rarest and strongest, then we shouldn't feel so overwhelmed by the expanse of the universe around our tiny planet. We are the diamond in the black, the earth that the Creator himself chose to enter. Eloise is a tiny daughter in a world of billions of other souls. But she is my daughter, and that makes it right.

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