A few weeks ago, I walked down to our local Landmark theater and got to see Beasts of the Southern Wild after hearing a co-worker talking about it.
This is probably one of the most moving and tastefully-done examples of the Folklore/Fairytale and Child Wonderment pillars of my thesis that's been done in recent years. So that immediately got me to sit up straight.
Very quickly, I was sucked into Hushpuppy's mythical world of The Bathtub and was in awe of the the brilliant metaphors that are woven into this poetic story. I immediately downloaded the soundtrack (also co-created by Director Benh Zeitlin) and was left stewing over the film for days after. I loved the movie so much that I made my fiance (now wife) come with me to see it a second time and this is what got me weighing the themes a little more deeply and appreciate the several depths that this film has to offer.
On the very surface, it's a fairytale about a girl coming-of-age. The girl, Hushpuppy, and her father live in a mythical place called 'The Bathtub' that has slowly been isolated from the rest of the world due to the rising sea level from melting icecaps. They live in a comminty of southern folkies that all live as happily and vivaciously as can be, despite their sub-third world living conditions. Hushpuppy goes on a quest of sorts after she realizes she "broke the universe", and she attempts to fix things on her own, but realizes she needs the help of her ailed father and her mother to give her the most basic survival skills to make things right again.
On the very basic sub-surface, it's easy to see that the film is a metaphor for life in the south post-Katrina and sort of spins it into an imaginative version of how things happened from a little girl's perspective. It could be seen as a psychological coping mechanism of this particular little girl who turns tragedy into fantasy (ala the early Italian Neorealism/Magical Realism of Vittorio DeSica in Miracle In Milan). From that perspective alone, the film has enough legs to stand on its own.
The next level of depth to the film exists in the idea of universal balance. In her naive, imaginative mind, she is convinced that she broke the universe by defying her dad (first by setting fire to her shack, and then by hitting him in the heart causing him to collapse). From this, she hears the menacing sound of glaciers breaking apart a world away from her, and knows that something bad is about to happen. After braving a storm of biblical proportions that floods out The Bathtub, her father plans to 'fix everything' and blow a hole in the wall that surrounds dry land to drain it out. They succeed in their plan and the water level decreases, but unfortunately this doesn't fix anything, and they are forced out of their homes and sent to shelters back on the mainland. Hushpuppy describes the shelter and its occupants as 'fish in a fishbowl without any water' and as such, they escape back to their watery haven back in The Bathtub. It is not until she comes to terms with life and death is out of your control that she is able to overcome this turmoil. This realization also dovetails into the other deeper theme of the film: personal balance.
Hushpuppy, for the first two thirds of the film is raised by her father, who treats her like an androgynous survivor rather than a little girl and pushes her more towards manhood than womanhood by teaching her to fish like a man, eat crab like a man, drink like a man and arm wrestle like a man. He even addresses her as 'man'. This creates an inner turmoil and forces her to break away from this lifestyle and travels to find her mother in a brothel-type shack shrouded in a warmly-lit glow of maternal comfort distanced far from the gritty, hyper-real life of The Bathtub that her father so passionately embraced.
It is not until she has had a taste of both worlds and learned from both her mother and father how to survive in the world that she is able to confront her inner beasts (shown metaphorically through the confrontation of a physical beast of a mythical buffalo-type creatures called an Aurochs). It is at that point she transforms and finds both personal and universal balance, which gives her the strength to face this beast and protect her family. In a sense she goes from being a weak follower to a strong leader once coming to terms with personal and universal balance.
While I was in the theater watching the film for the second time, I realized how closely these themes paralleled that of The Tree of Life, which many hated for its abstract expressions on existence, but at least in my interpretation of it, I saw the idea of the personal and universal balance the key themes of that film as well.
Tree of Life addresses universal balance by showing the big picture concepts like the formation of the universe, the coming of dinosaurs, and the first instances of compassion (humanity) for another creature. And it addresses personal balance in an individual's dissonance growing up in a household where the mother represented nature (or goodness stemming from the natural world) and the father represented grace (or actively choosing to be good, and the idea of spirituality). Again, in Beasts the parents represent similar principals and it's ultimately up to Hushpuppy to find the balance. In both films, they allude to the fact that both ideas are necessary. You're an individual and need to be balanced, but you're also part of a big picture that you're unable to control. Coming to terms with both will allow you to live life fully.
What's interesting though is despite very similar themes, they're both treated so differently and from what I can tell, Beasts is sort of an easier pill to swallow for mass audiences. It's possible that it's received better because it's more of a romantic poem that doesn't use big words in its cinematic vocabulary so the masses can "read" it, rather than an abstract haiku that takes days of gestation after the film to really get it and fully appreciate it. I enjoyed both films immensely but Beasts is an entertaining type of journey, whereas I felt Tree of Life was a more spiritually fulfilling, yet cognitively taxing type of process.
What I love about Beasts of the Southern Wild though is that it really shows the principals of my thesis at play and shows how it can be done effectively. It deals with the efficacy of the pillars, it's poetic, and it's timeless. It takes people's knowledge of Katrina and that sort of New Orleans culture and applies that just enough to get audiences to actively connect and participate in this modern fairytale.
For me, this film is why I wanted to be a filmmaker. It's unique, moving, inspiring and connects with a mass audience in a creative way.