Building Utopia in ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

I’ve written before about Beasts of the Southern Wild, the apocalyptic fairy tale about people living outside of the levees in Louisiana, which was my favorite movie at Sundance, remains one of my favorite movies of the year, and stars the most original superhero of the summer in six-year-old Hushpuppy. It’s a deeply, intensely political movie, though not along conventional lines: director Benh Zeitlin told writer Jeremy Butman of his characters, who live through a hurricane and resist efforts to relocate them behind the levees, that “It’s not like the movie is advocating that people not be rescued from disastrous situations. But it’s that condescending notion of, ‘We know better, you should live somewhere safer,’ which definitely infuriated me after the storm and that was a big entryway into the movie.”

I was also intrigued by what Zeitlin said in response to what I think is the most substantive critique of the movie, that it can seem to glorify extreme poverty, an answer that also clarifies the ideas behind his world-building:

The Bathtub is not a place where money exists. The whole idea of the Bathtub is that it’s a society where all the things that divide people have been removed. So there’s no religion, no politics, no money, no one sees race, there’s no rich and poor because there is no currency. So, I never thought about that because to me the Bathtub is this utopian place. And the poverty thing, to me it’s much more like it’s been cut off from the world, and it’s a survivalist place where they have to build everything by hand, they have to live off the earth. You don’t have any commodities to sustain yourself, but to me there’s no poverty there. There’s this ultimate freedom that exists there. But part of it is that when people see a trailer it’s like, “Oh, it’s a trailer. Poor people live in trailers.” That’s how I know it has been looked at, but I think that people are bringing certain preconceptions. When you see a trailer there’s a certain association. When you see black people in dirty clothes there’s an association. Those are things that people are bringing in because they’re used to those aesthetic elements communicating a very specific narrative about misery and poverty. So, it’s not that I don’t understand the reaction, but I don’t know that it’s in there.

Science fiction and fantasy can create new things, of course. But I think it’s easy to forget that they can also help us question the associations we have with images and signifiers, and pose challenges to our visions of what counts as affluence, or comfort, or an aspirational lifestyle. Respecting Hushpuppy means, at least for the duration of the movie, accepting her worldview. As she puts it, “Daddy says on the other side of the levee, on the dry side, they afraid of the water like a bunch of babies…The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world…Daddy’s always saying that up in the dry world, they ain’t got none of what we got. They only have holidays once a year. They got fish stuck in wrappers and babies stuck in carriages…Me and my daddy, we stay right here…We’s who the earth is for.”