Fox Searchlight’s child fantasy picture, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is an unusually distinctive movie. It is also extremely disturbing. Blurring realism and fantasy, it is impossible to distinguish between what’s happening and what’s imagined, with most of both involving a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) whose childhood takes place in a filthy shantytown in the Louisiana bayou and makes Slumdog Millionaire look like an episode of Dynasty.
Much of her story, or more accurately her narrative, is nonsense that borders on gibberish. Unwashed Hushpuppy listens to animal heartbeats, drinks alcohol with her drunkard father (Dwight Henry), best described as a dying lunatic with a few moments of sanity left in him, and, when she isn’t ripping into fish and animals like a savage, lives among an unwashed collective near New Orleans that fiercely guards its collectivism with brute force and terrorism. None of this is how the movie seeks to be perceived in its charming trailer yet there it is. Charming, tender little Hushpuppy is chronically abused by her father, who also uses her in a bomb attack using a sliced-open dead alligator, and left to fend for herself. All of which may or may not be real on the movie’s terms.
Alarmingly, none of this – a child using a blowtorch to light the stove, dancing with a tattooed prostitute on a floating whorehouse, sleeping indiscriminately with multiple adults and children – is judged in moral terms. On the contrary, the impending doom of Hushpuppy’s abusive father, who raises child endangerment to epic proportions, is the film’s emotional climax. Apparently, amid the fires, storms, floods, beatings and acts of hedonism, real or imagined, we’re supposed to form an admiration for the poor, dirty savages of the bayou, or “the bathtub,” even rooting for them to escape the clutches of those civilized rescue workers and medical professionals who dare to risk life and limb to liberate children imprisoned in scum, filth and misery from self-destructive communes. Daddy says this and Daddy says that, Hushpuppy coos in her six year-old voice, not knowing that Daddy’s a nutjob in need of a straitjacket. But when Hushpuppy gets into a screaming match with Daddy who implores the poor child never to cry and to shout that she’s the man, it is no longer possible to evade the fact that she’s the child.
For all its pretensions about being raw, magical and brutal at once, Beasts of the Southern Wild spares us the worst sights and sounds of Hushpuppy’s inhuman existence; it is merely condescending toward the poor, giving us an adorable young child where surely a hollow, haunted human would emerge. Its theme is ultimately the smallness of man, with Hushpuppy coming off the water-based platform of dancing hookers having faced a raging beast and embracing her own insignificance in the world – a monstrous ideal for a movie with a child at its core – after asking an old man “which way we’re going?” to which he responds: “It don’t matter.” Neither does this putrid exercise in depravity, which like so many movies in recent years fetishizes poor people as savages and mythologizes poverty as noble, defiant, doomed – and brave. What an evil combination. The best of movies about poor people – Conrack with Jon Voight and Madge Sinclair comes to mind – used to insist that even poverty can’t destroy the best in man. Today’s glut of poverty porn says just the opposite.