Since our film was only about 90 minutes, I figured it was pretty urgent to actually get a legitimate short in, and failing any other options I went straight to the 2013 Oscars for inspiration. I decided to go with the winner for best live-action short, a 20-minute composition called Curfew that was written, directed by, and starred unknown Shawn Christensen.
It doesn’t appear to be available on YouTube, but here’s a link to another site that has the full film (using Flash, sorry iPad users!). It’s a likeable enough film about a disowned and struggling former drug addict reluctantly relied upon for an emergency babysitting session with his niece. The ending is a bit trite – I almost thought it was going to be daring, and then it chickened out. Basically, either Christensen is a huge fan of Pink Floyd’s “The Final Cut”, or he would be mortified to hear it – one of the two. But it’s worth watching – the acting is pretty good even if the soundtrack is mixed a little too high at times.
Then, it was time for Jessie’s single film (she’s begging out of the second one due to a “med school interview”…whatever), Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by newcomer Benh Zeitlin. This evening may have been the first time that absolutely nobody in attendance had previously seen the feature (even for the more obscure films, usually the presenter has seen it). That’s perhaps even more of a surprise given that it was a 2012 Oscar-nominated film. Then again (and no, my mother never did tell me that whole trope about not saying anything at all), maybe all the people who had seen it didn’t show up for a reason.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is basically the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives in a Louisiana bayou community called “The Bathtub”. The Bathtub is an interesting place. From all appearances, it is completely isolated from the rest of the world, allegedly by a levee. To say that the inhabitants live in extreme poverty would be giving a generous definition to “extreme poverty”. People don’t appear to have money, or jobs, or to do much else other than raise livestock (plenty of chickens), trawl the bayou for crustacean dinners, drink moonshine, and have frequent holidays where they set off fireworks. It’s not clear where they get the fireworks, or how they would pay for them. These are the sort of things this movie makes you wonder about.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the community is the schoolshack, where a teacher gathers with the children of the community to teach them disconnected things of largely dubious value, like “everything is made of meat”, and “someday global warming will flood The Bathtub”, and “once upon a time there were giant creatures called ‘aurochs’, check out the cave art tattooed on my thigh”. Nothing about like reading, or math, or some sort of skill that might allow them to live in the world outside The Bathtub. And the thing is, you’d figure that if the Louisiana state government knew about this community, that they’d never allow the children to be educated in this way. But as it stands, the inhabitants love their community the way it is, with their (apologies to Hobbes) nasty, brutish, and short lives, and they’re going to cling to them. Why Child Protective Services isn’t on this is beyond me. These are the sort of things this movie makes you wonder about.
Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (her mother ran away after she was born). He’s kind of a grumpy jerk, hot-tempered and cruel. Maybe he’s got a reason – one day he just up and disappears for a while with no warning, leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself. She eventually gets so hungry that she burns down her trailer trying to cook some wet cat food. When Wink does show back up, he’s wearing a hospital gown.
So there’s a hospital, somewhere. That’s good to know. We’ll later learn that Wink is terminally ill with an undisclosed disease, but he’s not copping to it as of now. No wonder he’s so grumpy! But who paid for his hospital visit? Come to think of it, who paid for the canned cat food? They don’t even have a cat! These are the sort of things this movie makes you wonder about.
Finally the flood comes. Of course, it’s not rising sea levels, it’s huge storm (and probably a storm surge). Outside of each other they don’t have much to save. They have
two one raised trailer, and a boat made out of a pickup truck bed, and maybe a stash of cat food. Due to the floodwaters, Hushpuppy begins to put together her schooling and starts to imagine gigantic aurochs, encased in glacial ice, being released into the sea (cue scary and dramatic glacier calving stock footage) and heading their way specifically to The Bathtub.
But the community has more pressing problems than Hushpuppy’s overactive imagination, like the floodwaters that won’t go down. This is blamed on the levee, but the geometry of this problem isn’t exactly clear. If they were on the ocean side of the levee, the water would obviously retreat, so they must be on the protected side of the levee. But it can’t be high ground protected by a levee, because there would be a mechanism to open the levee and drain the water in case it is overtopped. So they must be on low ground protected by a levee – where blowing a hole in the side of the levee (which they do) shouldn’t help (which it does, immediately – I mean the place drains like a…it drains a lot). These are the sort of things this movie makes you wonder about.
Anyhow, it’s only after The Bathtub drains that the evil government people in helicopters come and forcefully execute a mandatory evacuation of the area. The residents are taken to a staging facility that basically looks like a palace after the squalor they’ve been living in, and Wink’s health deteriorates severely, but they all stage a jailbreak and return to their homes. Good thing the government doesn’t know where they live!
But once they get home, Hushpuppy and a bunch of other children impulsively decide on swimming toward a distant flashing light, which turns out to be an abandoned oil rig, or a boat, or an oil rig equipped with a boat that looks like an oil rig…it’s really not clear to me. Anyway, the kindly old owner (or squatter, or…) knows just what to with the kids who have shown up at his doorstep – take them to the floating brothel! At the floating brothel, Hushpuppy meets a very nice prostitute who is kind of insinuated to be her mother. Or Hushpuppy believes she might be her mother. To be fair, there’s quite a bit in this movie that would appear to come straight out of Hushpuppy’s imagination.
For instance, after she leaves the brothel she returns home to face down the menacing aurochs (played here by forced-perspective pigs despite the fact that historical aurochs were in fact cattle), which have finally made their way to The Bathtub for no apparent reason. They would appear, of course, to only exist in Hushpuppy’s imagination, and to represent her fear of her father’s impending death. She scares them off, Wink dies, and Hushpuppy is unafraid to face life as an orphan in a community where medieval standards of living would be a marked improvement.
Oh, and according to her father’s final wishes, she builds a funeral pyre in their boat and cremates his body along with practically their only remaining asset. Well, that was smart. Again, these are the sort of things this movie makes you wonder about.
It’s a pretty movie, and it’s a well-acted movie, but it really falls short. For one, the screenplay just has a ton of troublesome holes in it. The plot is basically the classic bildungsroman but all of the individual events are pretty much completely arbitrary and the world it resides in just doesn’t seem to add up. The distinction between the “real” world and the world of Hushpuppy’s imagination is also poorly done. I’m not saying this is a simple task, but watch Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and you’ll see how that sort of thing can be done to a movie’s advantage rather than its disadvantage.