For anyone who obsessed about the George W. Bush administration as much as I did, Beasts of the Southern Wild, was always going to be a film of interesting politics. Hurricane Katrina almost immediately became synonymous with governmental incompetence and media misrepresentation and has become a stain on Bush’s (already ridiculously tarnished) legacy. Amazingly, there is an infamous comment in his autobiography where he claimed that the lowest moment in his presidency was when Kanye West proclaimed that he ‘didn't care about black people’ after the hurricane. This is a film that tells the story of some of those people.
For a project as low budget as Beasts of the Southern Wild was, it is grounded in a decade that has become notorious for political, economic and cultural excess and can only be viewed as a political response to Katrina and it’s aftermath. The story revolves around a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by the incredible 6 year old Quvenzhané Wallis) and her relationship with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). They live in such abject poverty that the magic realism of the impending story is a comforting distraction from the reality of their immediate situation. The narrative begins with a storm that descends over The Bathtub, a mythical island that is located off of New Orleans, and follows the pair as they prepare for the storm and deal with its repercussions. The wonderfully surreal arrival of the eponymous beasts that haunt Hushpuppy seem to prepare her for the climatic and mortal upheavals that she will have to navigate throughout the story.
The inhabitants of this culture appear to be primarily modern-day hunter/gatherers that live in ramshackle dwellings created with pieces of truck/boat/plastic sheeting, yet they show a degree of community that is distinctly lacking in America’s further inland communities. The apparent neglect and violence that exists between Hushpuppy and her father is at first harrowing, in particular a scene where he knocks her to the ground with a slap, yet as the narrative unfolds it is an increasing illness that Wink is trying to shelter her from that explains why he is so desperate for her to learn to live independently. The implication here is that the government is, at best, unhelpful so life should be lived independently within The Bathtub community. The only times that they venture outside is once when they are dragged to a makeshift hospital, and a second time when Hushpuppy and some friends go to a local bar in an unspoken search of her mother.
The cinematography of the film is wonderfully retro and lo-fi, as if Daniel Johnston was in charge of a uniquely American yet aesthetically postcolonial neo-documentary. On top of that, the music was so moving (recorded in part by the director Benh Zeitlin) that I immediately purchased the album on iTunes and played the final title sequence on repeat due to the aching nostalgia I had for the speechlessness I experienced after Hushpuppy’s final voice over. It is a wonderful film and an amazing example of ‘alternative’ cinema tapping in to a feeling of empathy towards a disenfranchised cinema audience that blockbusters can only dream of.