Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, (2012)

By REBECCA, July 23, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Beasts of the Southern Wild for months, now, and I am thrilled to report that it did not disappoint.

The film is based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play “Juicy and Delicious.” Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 5 when she auditioned, and beat out thousands of other Louisiana locals) lives with her father, Wink, on a Louisiana island called The Bathtub, on the wrong side of the levy. Hushpuppy’s mother left years before, and her father (played by Dwight Henry, another first-time actor who happened to own the bakery next to the casting offices where director Behn Zeitlin often bought bread) is ill and drinks all the time. When violent storms threaten to flood The Bathtub, many locals pack up and head out, leaving a small cadre behind, who have to survive in the wake of the flood, which kills animals and plants, and floods their homes.

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and the AurochsHushpuppy narrates the film and both the script and Wallis’ performance are haunting in their emotion and simplicity, as is Dan Romer’s score, which reviewers have compared to a kind of stripped-down Arcade Fire. Guided by her voiceover, we experience the events of the film through Hushpuppy’s eyes: after her teacher tells the children about the aurochs, great beasts trapped under the ice, Hushpuppy incorporates the aurochs into the landscape of The Bathtub, finally identifying as a beast herself in sympathy with them; when Hushpuppy hits her father, we see him fall down, as if the fury and hatred she feels toward him actually have the power to slay him. Beasts is magical realism, then, inasmuch as Hushpuppy’s reality is our access point to this world.

Waterworld Kevin Costner

Waterworld

More interesting, though, are particularities of the film that aren’t magical but are composed from a hodgepodge that seems almost post-apocalyptic: Hushpuppy and Wink putter through the floodwaters in a boat made out of the bed of a blue pickup truck atop floaters, grabbing fish straight from the water for food; they live in ramshackle huts that appear to be constructed of layer upon layer of detritus gathered from their surroundings; in the evenings, they drink and socialize with the other denizens of The Bathtub, eating crabs, shrimp, and crawfish by the bucketful and knocking back liquor as the waters lap their feet.

Despite its overwhelming critical success (it won this year’s Grand Jury Prize in drama at Sundance) Beasts of the Southern Wild has been criticized for what some see as a kind of cultural tourism in which the lives of poor Southerners are exoticized and made magic, rendering them curiosities instead of complex characters. While I recognize the impulse behind this critique, I found the film’s genre—a kind of magical realism meets regional adventure piece—to argue against it. Rather than using Hushpuppy, Wink, and the other inhabitants of The Bathtub to generalize about a group of rural Southerners, Beasts uses the intricacies of the region itself to portray one particular coming of age story. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy works to make her personal mark and archive her existence, drawing her story on the wall of her cardboard box hiding place and speaking it to us in the voiceover: “In a million years,” she tells us, “when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and WinkSimilarly, Beasts has also been held up as an example of a director aestheticizing poverty, as the film finds exquisite beauty in scenes dominated by dirty, broken places, and muddy, hungry people. This critique is by no means a new one, and rests, it seems, on the troubling assumption that just because a place is poor it is necessarily immune to beauty. Further, this critique seems to reveal an anxiety on the part of viewers that they might find the suffering of others beautiful, be it Wink’s ever-further protruding cheekbones that catch the dim light like a wood carving in Beasts, or those of the concentration camp prisoners in Schindler’s List. Rather, the cameras of Beasts’ director and cinematographer seem to unfailingly find precisely the beauty of The Bathtub and its inhabitants that makes Wink and the others who stay cling so ardently to their home, despite the attempts of all forces to drive them from it. It is beauty, yes, but a fierce and treacherous beauty that betrays all attempts to control it—a sublime beauty, like the cleaving of the immense glaciers that Hushpuppy imagines frees the aurochs from their icy prisons.

Beasts of the Southern WildNot tourism, then, nor aestheticization, but a kind of joyful tramp—as only children can—through the mud connecting Hushpuppy’s home, her school, a much-maligned rescue center, and a floating paradise of catfish and women that brings Hushpuppy a kind of peace, finally allowing her to return to The Bathtub on her own terms rather than her father’s, a pack of fierce and loving girlfriends around her.

At its most explicit, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a critique of the institutionalized blindness to the populations of certain regions and the hypocrisy of rescue-efforts that value the lives they would choose for those people over the lives those people choose for themselves. More subtly, though, it’s a story of how we make our own homes and our own histories despite—or perhaps because of—the attempts to obliterate them. Does it have moments of sentimentality? Yes. Echoes of other films with innocent or young protagonists? Sure. But Beasts is very much its own movie. I highly recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild, whether you’re in it for its politics, its story, its beauty, or its characters.

 

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Dirty Little Secrets: Don’t tell anyone, but teens have sex.

Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity
Kerry Cohen
2011, Sourcebooks, Inc.

review by Tessa

Characters
Girls who have sex, and the people who study them.

Hook
Teenage promiscuity is a Heated Topic. Kerry Cohen is the author of a memoir about her struggle with being what she calls a “loose girl” and this is her exploration of the wider experience of women and teenage girls with having sex–specifically why some girls have a lot of it, and why they feel bad about it and get stuck in harmful patterns of it.

Worldview
The tagline on the front of this book reads: “It’s not about when girls are having sex. It’s about why”. In general, Cohen sticks to the guns of this thesis, but she’s often co-opted by culture and her own past angst.

Intention Achievement
Lots of different groups of people freak out about teenagers having sex. When they’re having it. How often. What kind. I’m having trouble writing about it now, because I’m worried about people freaking out about me writing about teenagers having sex. So I have to applaud Kerry Cohen for writing as straightforwardly as she possibly can about teenage girls and sex, and for acknowledging that the sex is happening and will happen and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In the introduction she explains that

“this is not a book telling teenage girls not to have sex.  On the flip side, it’s also not a book that encourages promiscuity.  It’s a book about how we can all work together to find a way to let teenage girls top harming themselves with their sexual behavior. It’s a book–at its core–about girls’ rights and sexual freedom.”

For a nonfiction book aimed at (at least partially) the parental segment of the population, this is one of the shorter ones I’ve seen.  It’s about 190 pages. And yet, I think it could have lost about 30 of those and been even more effective at delivering its worldview.  Much of the introduction covers things that anyone who has thought about the subject of sexual identity and feminism has probably heard before.  For example, the first chapter ends with these musings: “a girl’s sexual maturity must be a paradox. Look, but don’t look. Touch, but don’t touch. In this way being a girl is invariably tied up with need and negation, and with how a girl must negotiate these opposing forces. For boys, it is entirely different.” True. And…?  But then again, I’m assuming things about the intended audience for this book. It’s not written towards teenagers, it’s not totally written towards parents, and it’s not really a guide for people working with teens.  It doesn’t prescribe antidotes to the problems it talks about, but it does provide an appendix of worksheets.  So if it is a book about how “we” can help teenage girls find sexual freedom, why isn’t it written for teenage girls in the first place?  And how am I supposed to go around using my new knowledge to help teenage girls?

Cohen wants a world where girls can have sex, or not have sex, and it isn’t a big deal, and no one is called a slut or a prude, and no one feels compelled to develop a process addiction wherein they have sex just for male attention.  She knows there’s no easy way to get there save through hard work involving the women who are already in this cycle. As for a way to talk to girls who are just starting their sexual lives, so they can understand the subtleties of feeling free to have sex, but not as a substitute for total emotional fulfillment.  Cohen is honest enough not to have One Answer, but that leaves a book that ends up feeling like a mishmash of anecdote and hopeful thinking. There’s a core of helpful and intelligent thinking in there, but it can get lost.

The thing about Cohen is that she has her whole history to contend with. She obviously feels one way about the sex she’s had, and the way it has shaped and damaged her. I don’t think she feels negatively about having sex, but the terminology of the book uses “promiscuity” as a bad word, describing girls who can’t separate the urge for sexual attention from their own sexual desires.  At times I forgot I was reading a book that was striving to create a neutral world of teenage sex.

Cohen uses a frank tone without dipping into overly jokey encyclopedic teenage health issues territory.  There are things in here that need to be talked about. And I challenge any woman who reads this not to see a little of herself in some of the stories.  It’s a great conversation starter, even just for a conversation between you, yourself, and… you.

Dirty Little Secrets takes a good-sized chip out of the anxious, frozen wall around teenage-girl sex talk, but it’s searching for a way to build a utopian society of sexual self-awareness while examining the entirety of current sexual culture, which leads to some murky ambiguity.  Even so, I’d like to see more books like this, and I’d like them to start discussions among their target audiences, so that the issues to tackle become smaller and smaller for future authors.

Readalikes

I assume this photo is by Tavi. Go to the site already!

Rookie Mag has the most honest writing from teenagers and young adults I’ve seen in a long time.  I guess it was hiding out in blogs and zines, and now a lot of it is in one place, thank you Tavi Gevinson and Jane Pratt.  In fact, they just published an article by a girl named Lexi, called “The Perfect Girl”,  about some of the very things that Cohen talks about:

“What my point is: society sucks. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation. I’m not allowed to be fat, but I’m not allowed to go on a diet either (or keep a food diary, for that matter). I’m not allowed to be dumb, but I’m not allowed to be smarter than a boy. I’m not allowed to do drugs or drink, but I’m considered boring if I don’t. I’m supposed to be an empowered woman, but if I ask for respect dudes will just call me an annoying bitch. Heck, if I wait to have sex I’m labeled a prude, but if I lost my virginity today there would be a lot of people thinking that slut.”

Body Drama by Nancy Amanda Redd

A cheerfully honest book to help girls through craziness of puberty

I got this book from: the library, after reading a review of it in Library Journal.

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