My annual quest to see all the Best Picture Academy Award nominees continued last weekend with the scrappy indie competitor of the lot, Beasts of the Southern Wild, a magical-realism fable about stubborn penury-dwellers who do their best to ignore ripped-from-the-headlines natural disaster and do whatever they want whether it’s healthy for them or not. Not since No Country for Old Men has a film left me so depressed.
The film’s plot, as well as I can relay it without major spoilers:
Once upon a time there was a place called the Bathtub, a section of Louisiana two poverty levels below the meth-head dystopia of Winter’s Bone. In this place lived a wee tyke named Hushpuppy, whose name probably appears like that on her birth certificate except misspelled. Her deadbeat mother is a prostitute gone AWOL, so she lives with her daddy in a ramshackle hovel that’s slightly less ritzy than the South African alien-huts from District 9. Her daddy has no discernible income, but he owns enough chickens and crab meat to feed themselves and the other animals who hang out with them. Their neighbors appear no better off. Everyone’s happy in squalor because it’s their squalor.
Then comes Hurricane Katrina. Everyone lives through it and the damage to their shanties seems minimal and hard to discern from their previous everyday decrepitude. However, all that pesky saltwater gets into everything and jeopardizes their long-term living prospects. They try toughing it out, but the government intervenes and insists on relocating them to where the food and medicine are. Since this is a movie government and is therefore evil by definition, Hushpuppy flees and looks for somewhere else to spend the rest of the movie. Meanwhile, a personal tragedy unrelated to Katrina plays out to its final act.
Also, Hushpuppy is told a story by her probably-unlicensed Bathtub “school” teacher about a race of monsters called Aurochs who live in the polar icecaps until global warming ruins their frozen state of being and forces them to migrate. Their recurring symbolic presence is removed from the rest of the film but parallels Hushpuppy’s quest to survive, figure out her family arrangement, and keep looking cute or taciturn for the camera as needed.
I’ll agree Academy Award Nominee Quvenzhané Wallis seems like a very special girl, but I think the nomination itself partly sabotaged the movie for me because it raised my expectations slightly above zero. Most scenes and takes are cut so short, it seems as though it would’ve been very easy for an acting coach to look at Wallis, give her repeat-after-me instructions, let the camera capture a few tries, and pass the results along to the editor to select the best takes. The only real sustained bit of acting I caught is an ostensibly tear-jerking moment in which Hushpuppy looks toward the camera, holds her gaze steady for several seconds, and then in the same uncut take allows tears to commence flowing. I can see where a moment like that might be harder to manage without innate talent. Just the same, the fact that this very armchair-actor analysis was running through my head while I was watching, while my heart was supposed to be breaking along with hers, wasn’t a good sign of my engagement level.
By the end of Beasts‘ ninety-three-minute runtime, I found myself hoping the final scene would show Hushpuppy being spirited away from her environs hand-in-hand with a loving social worker like Precious, or at least by a well-meaning FEMA agent. But no, that would betray the moral of the story, which I think was: if you’re super-poor but really happy, then by all means, super-poor is the nobler way to live, even if it will soon kill you. If I was meant to find joy in Hushpuppy’s hard-knock life, a life in which everyone rejects change and never dreams of a better life, I’m afraid I missed it.
For standard MCC purposes, let it be known my Redbox copy of Beasts had no scene after the end credits. Then again, Redbox rentals always skimp on frills. For all I know, maybe the theatrical cut had a humdinger of an epilogue in which Hushpuppy is adopted by a lower-middle-class family and lives happily ever after. I can dream.