Beauty in the Beast

When I miss out on a big awards movie in the year it's released, it can often be because I sense something in it that I don't think I'll like. Then, when I catch up on it later, I'm generally proven correct, and disappointed in a film that everyone else seems to love. I honestly don't know, though, if it's the case that a movie is overpraised during hype season and I subtly picked up on it, or that a movie is getting perfectly acceptable praise, but just isn't to my tastes. Or, and this would be upsetting, if I'm holding this type of movie to a unfairly high standard when I finally get around to it.

Whatever the reason, it happened to Black Swan, it happened to Tree of Life, and now I must report that it's happened to last year's Best Picture nominee, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Remember when I said that one of the reasons Crash won Best Picture is so that crusty, old-fashioned academy voters could "give themselves a warm pat on the back for choosing a screechy diatribe of overwrought racial politics"? There's something similar at work here, where academy members could now congratulate themselves for throwing attention towards some pretty blatant Poverty Porn.

The protagonist is a little girl named Hushpuppy who is learning to navigate life in the "Bathtub", a bayou community cut off from "civilization" by a levee. Everyone in the neighborhood is fiercely independent, proud of their self-sufficiency and their ability to scrape by on the scraps of nature. Sure, they may not have shoes or roofs or medicine, but they've got their pride, and HOW MANY OF YOU CAN SAY THAT? Sorry, I spun into a little bit of a rage tangent there. At "school", Hushpuppy hears about the enormous beasts of previous eras trapped in the ice glaciers that are now melting, and imagines them thawing and wreaking havoc on the world. The real danger comes with a storm that wrecks what little structure the community has built, and scatters Hushpuppy, her ailing father, and the rest of the dwindling bayou folk.

In this movie, the rescue workers trying to evacuate people from a natural disaster area are villains, and the teachers who grimly inform their students that life sucks, so they'd better learn how to cling to existence like a weed are the heroes. It's an interesting twist on perspective, but the never-ending celebration of independence at the cost of health and sustenance gets old in a hurry. Hushpuppy may not have a bed, but she's free to run around with sparklers. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?!?

Sorry, sorry. Despite my problems with the story, this is a very visually arresting movie. I know that portraying poverty as beautiful is part of its intent, but that doesn't change the fact that it succeeds in that regard. There is also one scene that legitimately grabbed me, in which lonely children, normally left to their own devices, are taken to a floating brothel and dance with the ladies there. Both the prostitutes and the children find solace in each others' arms, no matter how temporary, and it's a lovely scene. If the entire movie could have been as lyrically beautiful as that, I'd be giving it a very different review. Instead, I'm peeved that a paean to squalor gave a bunch of affluent people the chance to feel good about themselves without having to actually address any social ills.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: C


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