Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Down on the Bayou: A Resilient Demimonde and a Determined Child

In John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, a 1940 classic adapted from a John Steinbeck novel, Ma Joad proclaims the populist message: “They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” She’s trapped in what was a genuine climate-propelled diaspora during the early 1930s. A severe drought had devastated states like Oklahoma known as “The Dust Bowl,” where growing food was soon an impossibility. Untold thousands of subsistence farmers hoped to resettle in more hospitable regions of the country while remaining nostalgic about their prairie roots.

The equally beleaguered characters in Beasts of the Southern Wild face homelessness after a hurricane floods “The Bathtub,” their hardscrabble habitat on the wrong side of a Louisiana levee. Across the divide, oil refineries pump out pollution. “Ain’t that ugly over there?” asks a little African-American girl named Hushpuppy, the movie’s amazing protagonist. “We got the prettiest place on Earth.” Although that place might look like a trash heap to outsiders, it’s beloved by those who have carved out a meager but unfettered existence there. She also intuits things beyond her day-to-day concerns, delivering a voice-over narration with a populist message that’s equally ecological: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.”

This whole indie project – director Benh Zeitlin’s feature debut co-written with Lucy Alibar – manages to fit everything together just right in telling the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), her ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry) and the ragtag, multicultural bayou community around them. Most exist way off the grid with no running water or electricity. They raise chickens and pigs, catch catfish by hand in the river, and the adults consume great quantities of alcohol, but everyone appears to revel in the freedom of a society with few rules. It’s an absolute lark for kids, who attend a rudimentary school where the teacher (Gina Montana) combines folklore with environmentalism in describing aurochs: fearsome prehistoric creatures encased in ice that can be released when the glaciers melt.

Quvenzhane Wallis & Dwight Henry
The glaciers, of course, are doing just that thanks to global warming. Aurochs, actually ancestors of domestic cattle, look like giant boars in Beasts and represent the cataclysmic terrors of a child’s imagination. Hushpuppy has imagination to spare. An articulate rural urchin with an impressive mane of hair, she “listens” to animals pressed against her ear but acknowledges they sometimes speak in code. Communication with her father is more complicated. When not boozing, he’s a harsh man with hidden tenderness trying to ensure his daughter will have the skills required to survive after his death, which seems increasingly imminent. She periodically calls out to her barely-remembered mother – who long ago “swam away,” according to Wink.

Survival is a challenge in the muddy bottom of the Mississippi Delta. Wink and his daughter dwell in two neighboring shacks that are the epitome of squalor, surrounded by an odd assortment of salvaged detritus. They navigate the waterways on a sort of pontoon he has crafted, with ample use of duct tape and rope, by mounting the flatbed portion of a truck onto empty oil drums. Cinematographer Ben Richardson doesn’t glorify their poverty, yet offers images that are astonishing by virtue of being so far off the proverbial beaten path.

The remarkable talents of tiny Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, both non-professionals, are likely to be recognized in the upcoming awards season among actors with Hollywood panache. The Beasts creative team, part of a New Orleans filmmaking collective called Court 13, deserves to win accolades for idiosyncratic excellence in a summer of predictable big-budget blockbusters. The movie earned the Grand Jury Prize when it was screened at January’s Sundance festival. While some might suspect sentimentality, only the hard-hearted could resist Hushpuppy’s plaintive outlook in the paradox of a feel-good/feel-bad production.

Unlike the Dust Bowl, the Bathtub is a fictitious locale but brings to mind every impoverished shantytown in the shadow of modern America, particularly the post-Katrina South. The unspoken ethos – “We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” – is evident in how the inhabitants fight for the right to be who they are when the government intervenes. Sanitary shelters are anathema to folks clinging to their independent albeit sodden heritage in what they consider the prettiest place on Earth, even when it can no longer sustain them. This is the antithesis of exhausted Okies like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath finding refuge in the Great Depression’s protective federal camps.  

Beasts, which essentially ends with a question mark, is a meditation on the fragile but stubborn nature of humankind throughout eternity. As a youngster with no real toys other than a hunk of charcoal in hand, Hushpuppy draws simple autobiographical stick figures that resemble cave paintings. The purpose, she proudly explains in her narration, is to let future scientists know that “once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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