Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

     I know it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to finish this month talking a movie that did not win any Academy Awards on Sunday (and I didn’t expect it to), but this happened to be my favorite movie of the year. I thought “Beasts of the Southern Wild” had an incredibly unique vision, with the entire movie seeming like it came straight from the perspective of our young protagonist. And to me, that was really powerful and added so much to its story, as I’ll tell you about here.

     “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, a film festival hit last year made with a $2 million budget, is the story of a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, who at nine years old is the youngest person nominated for an acting Academy Award). Hushpuppy lives with her father named Wink (Dwight Henry) in a bayou community supposedly outside New Orleans. Wink is supposedly suffering a heart condition, as one day he comes back home wearing a hospital gown and often has a hard time breathing. I say “supposedly” because—and this is the best part of “Beasts”—these specific details are never actually mentioned verbally in the film. As adult audiences, we can figure these details out, but as you’ll see in the film, the whole story is told from Hushpuppy’s point of view: her narration under the visuals, low camera angles similar to the height of a child, and no mention of New Orleans, heart failure, or Hurricane Katrina.

     Eventually, Katrina hits their community, otherwise known as the “Bathtub”, and most of the residents stay there despite their homes being flooded. They do their best to recover, but since the salt water has ruined a lot of their property, it becomes very hard for them to keep living there on their own. After Wink and some other men try to get rid of some of the water by dynamiting the nearby levee, the authorities come in and move the remaining residents to an emergency shelter. There, Wink undergoes surgery but does not recover from his heart troubles. Soon, Hushpuppy and the residents escape the shelter.

     As Hushpuppy tries returning home, she starts coming to terms with some of the realities that she did not understand as a little girl. On a boat, she meets a woman who may be her real mother, though we are never told whether or not she is. And once Hushpuppy and her companions return to the Bathtub, she finds her dying father and says her last goodbye to him. (This, by the way, is a powerful scene, especially considering these two actors were non-professionals.) And as Hushpuppy leads a group of people back to their neighborhood, her narration closes out the film:

HUSHPUPPY: When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me lying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. And when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I'm a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right.

     Throughout the film, Hushpuppy narrates about how she is fascinated by all the details of the earth: the woods, the animals, and so much more. She tells us early on that she thinks that if just one piece of nature were to come undone, the whole universe would collapse. Intercut with these narrations are images that aren’t quite part of the story, but that illustrate her point: shots of polar ice caps crashing into the ocean, and of some mysterious animals in a stampede going through the Bathtub—eventually coming face-to-face with Hushpuppy as she herself is in the face of her father’s death.

     These techniques of filmmaking, and the story it tells, is why I really loved “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. The innocence of childhood is portrayed incredibly well and incredibly uniquely, as well as the child’s coming of age. And as far as relating this idea to faith, I could do so almost immediately. One verse that comes to mind immediately is what Jesus says about the faith of a child: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” (Matthew 19:14)

     But let’s contrast this idea with another verse that occurred to me in 1 Corinthians 13, where the apostle Paul writes about love: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (13:11) So Jesus tells us to have the faith of a child to accept Him; but Paul says we need to put away childish things.

     At first, this may sound inconsistent, but I think it is talking less about childhood and innocence and more about the difference between faith and ignorance. As followers of Christ, we need to accept His way wholeheartedly; at the same time, that means putting aside our own ways, which may mean the ignorant, perhaps even selfish things we believed as children. I think this is what “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is trying to convey. It shows a child who sees the world from her own simplistic point of view, but from that view she needs to come to terms with the more ugly parts of her world.

     And as believers in Christ, we need to be able to do that: to look into the face of our world with faith, even love, to go through it in the name of Jesus. After all, Jesus tells his disciples in John 16: “‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’” (16:33) My prayer is that you would remember that this week.  

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