Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Article excerpt

Benh Zeitlin's first feature length film has made quite an impact in critical circles and among the public, sufficient to collect a large number of awards and nominations, among them Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Reviews uniformly mention the film's mythic qualities, which may or may not impress those of us in the study of religion for which the term has particular value and appeal. But, in fact, the film does offer many profound insights into myth and myth-making, and it could become a special resource both for teaching and study.

On the surface Beasts is just the story of a six year-old girl surviving a Katrinalike storm, and coming to terms with both an abusive, alcoholic father and a missing mother, but that's a bit like saying Gilgamesh is just the story of two brothers or Genesis just a tale of Middle Eastern tribes. In fact, the story walks the edge of the ordinary and the extraordinary, of that which elicits our anxious concern and that which propels us beyond mere concern. Beasts is a film that absolutely never leaves sight of the concrete but also never allows the factual world to be what common sense tells us it is. In Eliade's definition of myth, it's a true story.

What is most striking about the film is how rooted it is in squalor. The opening shot is of weeds, scrub, a nearby oil refinery, and a trailer home that ought not to be inhabited. In fact it is, by Hushpuppy, the six year-old child, and to describe it as ramshackle is to understate the state of disintegration and collapse in which the child lives. Nearby is a similar structure lived in by her father, Wink, a man as broken down as his home and as apt to hit Hushpuppy as to talk to her. All is squalor: there is no shot of beauty in the film. Every visual would tempt one to yearn for social services or the Red Cross or disinfectant or pharmaceuticals, and yet such a response would be entirely out of place for the film offers better: Hushpuppy's visions and words. …

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