Beasts of the Southern Wild: not poetic, just patronising

Beasts of the Southern Wild has garnered much praise, but its message seems to be that the poor like being poor.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Politics

Beasts of the Southern Wild, the low-budget indie debut from writer/director Benh Zeitlin, has been turning heads in the film world of late. When it hit the 2012 festival circuit, it picked up, amongst other accolades, the Caméra d’Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Since then it has garnered critical acclaim amongst leftish critics who have hailed it as a fantastical fable for our times, steeped in visual poetry yet also speaking to pertinent social issues.

Truth is, all this film speaks to is the inherent prejudices and political confusion of those who have seen fit to slap four or five stars on this flowery piece of claptrap.

The whimsically-named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a six-year-old girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a place called The Bathtub, a small swampy island just south of the levies of New Orleans. Populated by shack-dwelling fisherman and their families, it is a place of muddy communal bliss, which shuns the starchy, over-petted life of the mainland and revels in its almost nightly parties involving fireworks, fiddle music and a lot of heavy drinking. In short, it is the kind of society that secessionist Occupy supporters would dream of setting up – something we can only presume is being delayed by a reluctance to throw away their collective Pret A Manger loyalty cards and learn how to gut fish.

As such, the profoundly patronising (but worryingly prevalent) notion that those living in squalor much prefer it that way rears its ugly head right from the off and, as the film wears on, things get even more suspect. In part due to a freak cooking accident, the polar ice-caps melt, flooding The Bathtub. Wink, one of the few insistent enough to stay in The Bathtub after the storm, decides to destroy the levy so that water will flow away from The Bathtub and into New Orleans.

Critics have interpreted the film as a tribute to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina as well as a cautionary tale about the effects of global warming. Yet if we are to believe this is a solemn look at the New Orleans survivors, then why is Wink the one who purposefully breaks the levies? Meanwhile, the environmental subplot doesn’t quite add up either, in part complicated by the fact that the vicious effects of climate change are represented by giant prehistoric monsters who appear from the ice flows and begin to wreck havoc.

Crucially, few even tried to account for the script’s strange attempt to coalesce the two. Is Zeitlin underscoring Hurricane Katrina as a product of climate change that thus can be traced back and blamed on the victims for their own cavalier fossil-fuel usage? And is Zeitlin suggesting that, in the wake of the disaster, the residents of New Orleans should have gone back to nature and set up home in waterlogged shacks? Perhaps then they should have taken the whole ordeal as proof that Mother Nature has deemed them unworthy to live in proper housing?

If there is a parallel being struck, it is deeply disrespectful and, more importantly, doesn’t really make any sense. The fallback position has been to deem it wonderfully opaque, with seminal American film critic Roger Ebert describing it, in a positive way mind, as ‘an allegory of anything you want’.

This is what Beasts of the Southern Wild owes its success to. By throwing in a couple of societal touchstones and laying on a fantastical and cutesy aesthetic, Zeitlin has created something that we criticise at our peril. If we don’t get it, we’re either not digging deep enough or we are insensitive to the issues it deals with. If all else fails and you still can’t work out what the hell is going on, you just label it ‘poetic’ – which seems to have become a byword in film reviewing for something which is bereft of conceivable meaning, but still rather pretty.

The grainy, rust-hued cinematography is certainly charming, as is the island-of-misfits aesthetic. But beyond the toothless alchies with hearts of gold and the fishing boats made of old pick-up trucks, there’s only a mess of contemporary social referents and patronising ideas about the poor. It’s really rather worrying that people have seen Beasts of the Southern Wild as anything other than offensive.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild here:

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Topics Politics


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