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Feeling Small in a Big Universe

I had a difficult time figuring out the strange familiarity that permeates the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. The characters move through a land of fanciful filth, mingling with uncultivated beauty- fantastic scenes, and sometimes gruesome characters. The land is populated by drunk, grungy, flaring tempered adults.  So why the recognition? No. I’m pretty eccentric, but don’t quite rise to the lofty weirdness of Southern Gothic, thank you. That’s not it.

Then it became wildly evident. This director succeeded in producing a film that exquisitely taps into the bewilderment that is childhood. The look of this movie is profoundly different than most summer fare, and I would suspect that a viewer who dislikes the film would still come away from it with a powerful memory of the visuals. This is the world as seen by six year old named Hushpuppy. The place she knows becomes menacing as a powerful storm pummels the area. And you feel every bit the child as you watch this atypical work. I’d say the feeling of familiarity comes from the very skilled manner in which this director makes the viewer feel like a tiny and scared six year old.

The film thrusts you into an imagined Southern Louisiana spot called “The Bathtub”.

The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world” Hushpuppy states, in an attempt to explain its allure. I imagine this would be true, as my niece in New Orleans just said that they finished up “White Linen Week” only to be replaced with the festivities of “Dirty Linen Week”. I would surmise that a place close to New Orleans, but wilder would create even more suspect holidays, and that is truly commendable in my estimation.

But The Bathtub is also a place of crouching doom, due to the placement of levees, rising tidal waters, and mammoth hurricane potential. It’s pretty much just a matter of time for the place. Other forms of lurking annihilation come from the Bathtubbers’ discordant manner of living, which is simply at odds with pretty much the rest of the world. In The Bathtub, little Hushpuppy feels the heartbeat of living creatures around her, but upon viewing a modern medical bed, she sadly states When animals get sick out here, they plug them into the wall.” One is not allowed to be a natural beast in this world. The wild living is not portrayed in a sentimental manner, though- in fact I kind of wanted to take a real bath after that immersion in the post-flood world so vividly painted on the screen. Simply full of rotting carcasses and industrial filth-it’s a way of life corrupted and sickened by the very nearness of industrial civilization. And I’m not sure it’s a good plan to give a six year old her very own trailer on stilts, complete with blowtorch cooking aids. Wild beastliness can go too far.

And be forewarned, the film does not have a central and direct theme; it meanders like the swamps of The Bathtub. If this bothers you, certainly don’t see it. The value of this film is in its submission to the viewpoint of the child. It is remarkably easy to feel the inner confusion of Hushpuppy as she tries to understand the behavior of adults around her, mainly her ill and slightly insane father (who does seem to have a purpose for trying to toughen wee Hushpuppy). The father is another gem in the movie; he’s filled with angst in regard to his daughter’s future, so he fashions a survival strategy as bizarre and haphazard as the truck-bed boat they use to travel through The Bathtub. Oddly enough, the boat and the strategy seem to work.

I won’t give you a linear description of the film because it’s just not all that possible. And the kind of person who wants that summary wouldn’t like this film.

There are swirling topics to consider as they inhabit Beasts of the Southern Wild– even if they are subtle and subservient to the journey of Hushpuppy. We all live in artificial conditions, but like scared domesticated creatures, we cling to these environments, with little idea how to live beyond the “aquariums” as Hushpuppy puts it. But even if one has the desire to live on different terms, there are countless forces making it all but impossible. So in this plastic environment, our culture often clings, and yes, plugs into walls, despite the cruelty of it all. And this very religious nation fears death in a manner probably unlike any society in history. “Letters from the Earth” has Mark Twain wondering why all these people looking forward to heaven don’t show that anticipation a little bit more. He also wonders why they don’t take some harp lessons, too–while alive so they can be prepared. It’s a fair question. The humor masks a serious question, though. Why be so terrified if this is truly what you believe? This film has questions about living naturally, and on your own terms without fear.

Hushpuppy has found at least one key to immortality; she documents her existence the best she can by producing flowing sketches for others to find in a hazy future. She feels that this will prove she was there. The child states “They gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”It’s a small thing, but we all want to be remembered. Evaporating into the fabric of the universe can be a terrifying or comforting notion. But being remembered is always desired.

This is a dear little movie that will leave you feeling tiny, but that isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Hushpuppy says I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.” 

It’s a beautiful and strange tale that won’t leave you anytime soon.

Kathleen Peine writes out of the US Midwest and can be contacted at kathypeine@gmail.com or at the website paintedfire.org

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