Beasts of the Southern Wild: a Republican fantasy?
While I normally let reviews stand on their own, I wanted to say a little more about my pan of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that's already been widely acclaimed and has inspired heated arguments. My dissent with the movie has nothing to do with its aesthetics or ambition, both of which strike me as admirable, but with what it says as allegory: Beasts appropriates a recent tragedy—namely, Hurricane Katrina—in a way that strikes me as glib.
This isn't to say that all movies with troubling political resonances are bad ones; just last night on TCM I caught part of On the Waterfront, an all-time classic that, inescapably, was also Elia Kazan's self-justification for testifying before HUAC. Still, I can't shake the sense that Beasts of the Southern Wild plays like a Republican fantasy version of what happened during Katrina. Intentionally or not, it implies that stranded Ninth Ward residents not only wanted to stay on their rooftops but somehow—through their own stubbornness in not clearing out—deserved to be there. And what's more, that the best thing to do about it was to leave them alone.
As recently as at least last year, you could hear GOP presidential candidates talking about the prospect of federal hurricane relief as if it incentivized Americans to build on low-lying ground. Beasts seems to argue that it's just as well FEMA dropped the ball. Not only do residents of the Bathtub (the movie's Ninth Ward stand-in) resist government help, but the authorities fail to understand what they're getting into. ("They say we were here for our own good," Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, says after Bathtub residents are relocated to a hospital—leaving little doubt that she doesn't think they are.) Eventually, Bathtubbers stage an an escape ("We're bustin' out of here!") that the movie plays as a triumph.
The depiction of poverty, too, seems in keeping with a particular stereotype, in which the poor only lack resources because of their own failures of initiative. In the Bathtub, every day is a holiday and no one seems to have much desire to be employed. Parents are depicted as alcohol-guzzling and inattentive-bordering-on-deadbeat. "If anything goes wrong, Walrus is dad," Hushpuppy's father, Wink (Dwight Henry), tells her, entrusting her to a neighbor in a moment the movie plays for a laugh. And that's to say nothing of the film's charged racial imagery (e.g., Wink swigging from his booze bottle and haplessly shooting at storm clouds, or, in a fantastical flashback, lazing in the sun).
I doubt that first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin meant for the movie to play as a magical-realist apologia for Bush's failings. (Spoiler alert: The Bathtub residents eschew help, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and learn, as Hushpuppy explains to one of the eponymous beasts at the end, to take care of their own.) But it's not a film in control of its own metaphor, and it poses troubling questions where it likely intends only uplift.