Beasts of the Southern Wild | Movie review
This year’s Sundance sensation allegorizes Katrina—as George W. Bush might like to remember it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in the Bathtub, a fantastical shantytown on what a map hints is the Louisiana coast. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives there with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who teaches her to catch a catfish with her hands and to shell a crab with the proper fervor. The Bathtub doesn’t mingle with the Dry World. “They built the wall that cuts us off,” Hushpuppy explains in a voiceover that owes more than a slight debt to Days of Heaven. “They think we’re going to drown down here.” But no one wants to leave, even though a storm threatens to submerge everything south of the levee.
Sound familiar? The surprise of this magical-realist tale, a sensation at Sundance this year, is that it allegorizes Katrina as George W. Bush might like to remember it. In the Bathtub (standing in for the Lower Ninth Ward), every day is a holiday, and the largely black residents are depicted as alcoholics, inattentive parents or fools who accidentally set fire to their homes. When authorities do intervene, they’re helpless anyway: Bathtubbers run from the hospital. Forget FEMA; in a message amplified by Hushpuppy’s valediction, the movie implies hurricane victims would rather take care of their own.
It’s easy to see why Beasts won raves on the festival circuit: First features are rarely so visually striking, and at least one detour, on a floating burlesque house, achieves the much-hyped lyrical grace. But as a parable, the movie is ill-thought-through at best, insensitive at worst. With only a little of Hushpuppy’s childlike spunk, it turns out, those Ninth Ward residents could have helped themselves off their roofs.