Generally speaking, I value the work that critics do. While detractors assert that critics try to moralize about art and make universal claims about what is and is not “good”, no critic worth the effort of reading is going to make that claim (or write in a voice that makes such an assertion reasonable). It isn’t the job of a critic to pass down universal judgement but to make a case for where a work showed merit and where they found it to be lacking. Different critics will approach their work with different values, just like the rest of us. In an ideal world, critics will have a more informed eye and mind, recognizing nuances that we lay people may have a more difficult time identifying or verbalizing. As such, by finding writers who tend to have values similar to our own, we can rely on proficient criticism to help us discover and consume culture that we will find more satisfying.
Sometimes, though, critics are just plain wrong. Just like the rest of us, they can distort a work they encounter and imagine that it is somehow connected to other issues about which they have strong opinions for better or worse. A forgivable offense in most cases, but one for which I have little patience when it impacts public opinion of a movie I hold in high esteem.
I first encountered this frustration in the wake of Wall-E, perhaps my favorite Pixar movie and a film that is disliked and championed in equal measure by people who believe it to be a piece of environmentalist propaganda. Wall-E plainly depicts the consequences of an absurd level of consumerism, but it isn’t a movie about condemnation. Wall-E is a celebration of humanity. We’re asked to share in the wonder of Wall-E and Eve as they discover the joys of so many things we take for granted: love and dancing and human ingenuity. Ingenuity that not only allows us to nurture life, but to make the very things — whether Hello Dolly or sporks — that so many loudly claim the movie condemns.
These days, I find that my ire comes down on people who cannot seem to talk about Beasts of the Southern Wild without also making at least a passing reference to Hurricane Katrina. I will guarantee that the Louisiana bayou has been flooded plenty of times by plenty of storms before Katrina and likely since. Mentioning Katrina by name conjures up notions of class and race and other issues we associate with that debacle.
In my opinion, Beasts of the Southern Wild was never meant to make claims about the specific circumstances of its characters, and without bringing up Katrina, it’s difficult to make a reasonable argument that race or poverty are meant to be essential elements. For one thing, The Bathtub isn’t a ghetto. It’s multi-racial. If you’re insisting that Hushpuppy is black for reasons other than Quvenzhané Wallis being absolutely astounding in the role, that’s not Ben Zeitlin’s fault.
For another, The Bathtub is only impoverished in a very relative sort of way. Everybody has shelter and food to eat and seems to live life with an undeniable love of their community. This sort of setting is necessary because communities like the Bathtub tend to place a higher value on tradition and family, and, in my opinion, Beasts of the Southern Wild is ultimately about the impermanence of these essential elements of the human experience. Beyond that, it’s about our natural tendencies to simultaneously fight against and cope with this realization.
Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t a commentary, it’s a fairly tale of a sort. It’s a movie about Hushpuppy’s endeavors as she does everything she can to hold her world together long enough to accept that change is unavoidable. You can’t talk honestly talk about how she suffers because of her circumstances because she doesn’t suffer. She is determined and defiant and successful until she encounters the inevitable, at which point she finds the resolve she needs to embrace what lies ahead.
And yet the truly great thing about this movie, from a pure construction standpoint, is that we are asked to be incredulous of this improbable success. From the impossible instant when Hushpuppy comes face to face with the Auroch in the closing minutes, we’re given license to question all of the unlikely events that have preceded that encounter. The severity of the flooding, the escape from the evacuation center, the voyage to the floating bar. How much of the movie is being embellished or even fabricated in Hushpuppy’s childish understanding as she prepares herself for the undesirable realities of life?
How much of our own lives are the same?
Along with the beautiful cinematography and the mind-blowing performance by Wallis, it is this simple, inescapable question that made Beasts of the Southern Wild resonate so immediately with me. But when you try to tie it to unfortunate, tangentially related political realities, it becomes a ham handed, pandering affair about being stuck in a needlessly harsh environment and ignorantly fighting against enormous odds to remain there. It becomes manipulative instead of imaginative and sad instead of hopeful.
Some people love this version of the movie and some people hate it, but in either case it is almost certainly a diminished version. Why anybody would insist on dragging down Beasts of the Southern Wild in this way is beyond me, and I will fight those people everywhere I encounter them.