Before I finally got around to seeing the acclaimed indie, Beasts of the Southern Wild, late last week, I read the only bad review of the film that entered my Twitter feed. If you’re late to the party like I was, stop reading here. There will plenty of spoilers from this point on. In a sea of raves and critical fawning, Dana Stevens of Slate wasn’t having it, claiming the film was underwritten and false. But what stood out most among her (many) grievances against the movie was her reading of the central father-daughter relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy:
Early in the film, Wink is shown treating his daughter with alternating savagery and neglect—behaviors that were hard for me to square with later scenes, when he’s painted as a devoted, self-sacrificing father.
After the terrible things Wink lets happen to his daughter during the opening scenes, it would take a really well-written second half to make us believe in his moral transformation—and this movie’s second half is barely written at all.
I watched the film with an eye toward Stevens’ observation of the parent-child relationship at its core, and the whole time, I was waiting to feel similarly put off by Wink’s treatment of Hushpuppy. But that moment never came. While it’s true that Wink is distant, abrasive, and on one occasion, violent with Hushpuppy, I found even his most brutal acts tied in very clear ways to his devotion and self-sacrifice.
Everyone in the Bathtub treated children with similar “neglect,” leaving themselves for long stretches while they alternately caroused or prepared for what they believed was a certain imminent apocalypse. Hushpuppy says early on that children without parents are left to live in the woods and steal clothing for survival. It isn’t a place that lends itself to gentle interaction, but that doesn’t mean that Wink isn’t nurturing his daughter–even from the beginning. When he leaves her unattended, we soon find it’s for a legitimate reason. When he pushes her away with harshness or insists that she develop her own sense of savagery it’s to gird her for a time when he’ll no longer be present to protect her.
And he is very clearly out to protect her. By insisting on extreme self-sufficiency, he’s acting with an eye to her very long-term future. He wants what he believes is best for her and tries, in many ways, to protect her from the worst of himself.
Though this situation is fantastical and dystopian in several ways, the ideas at its core are so resonant because they point to an experience that is not uncommon in some families. Certainly, I saw some parallels to my own childhood experience. The worst spankings I’ve ever received were when my mother was most afraid that what I’d done could’ve resulted in her losing me. The time when I hopped on an older girl’s bike and rode off to the local 7-11, prompting my mother to believe I’d gone missing, resulted in the belt-use to end all belt-uses. The time when, at age 12, I desperately forged a signature on a poor progress report–a felony that, if left unchecked, could’ve led to a jail sentence–resulted in similarly harsh punishment. If you’d stepped into our home in those moments, you might’ve misread them as Stevens misreads Wink. But like, Hushpuppy, I later understood that it meant I was fiercely loved.
I’m a fan of a mellower, more reason-based approach with my toddler. But then, I’ve never felt the heart-dropping sensation of her running out into a busy street or setting our kitchen on fire or wandering off without asking. I’ve never had to prepare her for a world that would do a lot worse to her than my harsh words or my corporal punishment.
In any event, it’s an unaccustomed eye that gazes on Beasts of the Southern Wild for two hours and doesn’t see how the ends justified the means in the world of director Benh Zeitlin’s creation. There’s a case to be made for “savagery” when the world to which you’re entrusting your child is misshapen and monstrous and wild.