After watching Beasts of the southern wild, I left the movie theatre with mixed feelings. I was not, however, surprised by reading of its enthusiastic reception at the last edition of the Cannes Festival. Such a plot and such actors are a perfectly oiled machine for success.
Beasts of the southern wild is a visually flawless movie. Its beauty has a wild, unrestrained, stunning quality. The film tells the sad and simple, story of a 6 year old child, Hushpuppy (played by a superb Quvenzhané Wallis), fleeing through a flooded South, under the double threat of the impending natural catastrophe and of her father’s rapidly deteriorating health. One of the pictures now circulating on the web shows Hushpuppy, in her mangrove-shaped hair, literally irradiating energy out of her finger tips. I find this image to be faithful to the movie’s spirit.
The movie escapes rigid genres definitions. Its future setting is created more through the setting than through the storyline (the latter being centered on the universal topic of father-daughter love); yet, its post-apocalyptic world is somehow reminiscent of the 80s cyberpunk aesthetics and has something in common with the realm of literary uchronia (such as the idea of pre-history and far distant future being interchangeable, as Roy Lewis taught us). Director Benh Zeitlin shows us of a changing word, where ice caps are melting and the sea level is fast rising, critically threatening large areas of what we presently call our “civilization”. The fans of the genre, however, should not brace themselves for a catastrophic turn, like the one depicted in mediocre apocalyptic movies such as The day after tomorrow.
The movie’s polemic target, if there is any, is to be found in the present. Even the most naïve spectator will easily identify the reference to episodes of the recent history, to the Katrina Hurricane, the at least questionable management of the the Louisiana Superdome, and the racial segregation that took place during the flood and in its immediate aftermath.
In its visual construction, Beasts of the southern wild clearly displays a deep awareness of the nature of borders. The “Bathtub”, the bayou community here represented, is neither a dystopian nor a utopian construction: it is rather suited by the definition of a foucauldian heterotopia, a notion that Darko Suvin has listed among the possible paradigms of science-fictional imagination. For “the Bathtub” is a world governed by different rules, with an education, a family and a school of its own kind. In it, the main steps of life (such as giving birth, naming newborns, and celebrating funerals) do not abide by the common rules of the rest of the world; even the natural events seems to follow more the pattern of magical realism (or of Hushpuppy’s daydreaming) than the rules of physics. The deepest political message of the movie is therefore to be found in its awareness of the political constructedness of spaces, rather than in the denunciation of the global warming’s devastating effects. The rim built by the white inhabitants of the city stands there as a segregating barrier, as one of those walls who separate conflicting worlds, in Palestine or on the California-Mexico border: not only does it reject the mounting tide of the rising sea, but it also keeps out the “nomadic” existences of a community of freaks. No wonder, then, if the journey of the young protagonists and of her non-traditional family ends in the misty frame of a no-man’s land; a stretch of land fading away in the sea, with its liminal quality, is the closest image we can have of our future.