Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild -- resilience, legacy and hope

Director: Benh Zeitlin, 2012 (PG-13)  

Beasts of the Southern Wild has garnered acclaim and trophies, from British Film Awards to prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. These were capped with four Oscar nominations, including best actress, best director and best picture. Yet, for all this, I didn’t really like the film. Too slow, with too little plot, it failed to grip my attention.

The movie centers on Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, a newcomer), a 6 year-old girl and her father Wink (Dwight Henry). They live in “the Bathtub,” a self-contained community in the southern Delta of Louisiana. Isolated by levees, they are virtually at the edge of the world.

Hushpuppy lives in a trailer while her daddy lives in his own domicile, a home of sorts made from whatever can be scrounged, adjacent to hers. Her mama is gone, we are never told from what. Life is hard and harsh, yet simple. Hushpuppy spends her spare time dreaming and talking or listening to various animals. Technology has not crowded out imagination and wonder.

Quvenzhane Wallis as "Hushpuppy" and Dwight Henry as "Wink" in Beats of the Southern Wild.
Into this routine comes a storm, one akin to Hurricane Katrina, that dumps water and destroys homes. Those that stay, like Wink, Hushpuppy and a few others, find themselves surrounded by water, mud and muck.  Into this routine, too, comes another form of destruction: disease. Wink is dying. Finally, into this routine comes aurochs, huge wild beasts from ancient mythology. This turns the film, at times, into a work of magical realism.

One of the strengths of the film is the acting. First-time feature director Zeitlin (also the writer) elected to use locals for his actors. Young Wallis won the key role over 4000 over kids, and does capture the heart throughout. Wink is a local baker who at first refused to be in the film, but finally signed on when the director agreed to do rehearsals around his baking schedule! You won’t find an actor here you recognize, although Wallis is sure to get more roles in bigger films in the months and years ahead.

Three key themes seem to emerge from Beasts: the resilience of humanity; the dream of a legacy; and the hope of a future.
When all are leaving, abandoning their homes and hopes, some like Wink and Hushpuppy remain. They evidence a resilience, that recoils despite the tragedy. They are unwilling to give up on their culture and their community. They survive with what is at hand.

Humans, despite all their faults, have this resilience of character. Survival hovers in our gene pool. We have been created at the top of the pile, the king of the animals. We are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26), and we don’t give up easily. This has been demonstrated time after time, throughout the centuries and the ravages of war and disaster. We rebound, we fight back, we eventually make it through. We don’t give up.

One of the things that keeps us going is hope. One form of hope is the dream of our legacy. At one point in the film, Hushpuppy, this young girl barely out of diapers, tells her motivation: she wants people to remember that “once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” Even at this tender age, she wants to leave a legacy.

We all want to be remembered. But what will we be remembered for? In our lives, have we made a difference? I am not talking about fame and stardom. Few of us will ever be celebrities or movie stars, Nobel Prize winners or CEOs. But we all touch lives. We impact our families, our neighbors, our co-workers. We make a difference, either for better or for worse. Are we deliberately living generously, to encourage and impart love and joy in others? Or are we living passively, caring little for how we relate to others? Worse still, are we living selfishly, using others to better ourselves? We can craft a legacy by how we choose to live. Will we actively seek to make a difference now?

Hope, though, forms the anchor. The Bible calls it the anchor for our soul (Heb. 6:19). Sadly, Beasts offers little in the way of hope. The film is humanistic, providing no room for God. Hushpuppy hopes to see her mama, and a surreal boat-trip across the gulf to a converted oil-well turned brothel, gives a glimpse of what might have been. But this is a fleeting and fickle hope.

Beasts offers no hope of a savior, either for Wink or Hushpuppy; nor even for the community. They will make or break on their own. Even the aurochs provide no shelter; they are too busy running and trampling, or eating one of their own.

The human heart wants, even needs, hope. True hope comes only through Jesus Christ, the Savior God-man who delivers us from disaster and death. Such hope inspires endurance in this life (1 Thess. 2:19), and a keen anticipation of the future life that will be inaugurated with the return of this savior (Tit. 2:13). Whether we live in the Bathtub or the Penthouse, death will eventually come knocking on our door as it did for Wink. Our only hope is to take refuge in Jesus. He is our Savior of the Southern Wild.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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