While some films aim for nothing more than popular appeal and a massive return on initial investment (e.g. Transformers), other films set their sites on something entirely different, something more lofty, even transcendent perhaps. Without question, Beasts of the Southern Wild is firmly entrenched in the later camp, as it is a small, offbeat and yet visually arresting film, complete with a break-out performance by an unknown child actor. Add to that a storyline that is simultaneously gritty and yet fantastical at the same time, it almost seems as if Beasts was intentionally designed to actively court the Oscars. But the question is: does the film have anything to actually say?
Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of a six-year old African-American girl, who scratches out a brutally harsh existence with her father in a mythical Louisiana bayou known to its citizens as “The Bathtub.” On the verge of facing a catastrophic storm that is clearly meant to evoke our collective memories of Hurricane Katrina, most of the inhabitants of this community abandon it in favor of evacuation. But Hushpuppy and her father refuse to leave. Opting instead to stay behind in their beloved community, they survive the storm only to face devastating flood waters, deteriorating health, and a community that seems almost beyond repair.
In many ways, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a film that Spike Lee might have crafted in his younger days. Bristling with raw, kinetic energy and a foreboding sense of doom, the film makes an impassioned plea to see the nobility and the dignity of African-Americans who live their lives amidst grinding, unrelenting poverty. But where Beasts carves out it own unique territory is in its use of mythical imagery. Sprinkled throughout the film are these staggering images of rampaging “aurochs,” imaginary beasts that represent the romanticized power of nature and our need to keep in balance with the material world that surrounds us.
While there is much to commend about a film such as this, one is also left somewhat befuddled by its underlying theme. Marketed as a film that celebrates the power of hope, the Christian can’t help but watch the film and wonder: hope for what? While “The Bathtub” is clearly depicted as a tough and brutal environment, it is also portrayed as a pseudo-Eden, where the inhabitants live in a sort of primeval bliss as they celebrate “more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” The problem, of course, comes in the depiction of these “holidays.” Seemingly fueled by never-ending streams of moonshine and a communal love of fireworks, the inhabitants don’t seem to recognize the fact that their “holidays” are little more than fleeting retreats from the pitiless realities of this world. And retreats, while often diverting and enjoyable, don’t fundamentally alter the nature of the reality that one faces. When Hushpuppy and her father wake up every morning, the fireworks and the booze are gone; and all that remains is the shantytown that defines the better part of their lives.
Even now, as I reflect back upon the film, I find myself wondering whether this is indeed a metaphor for how many people (both rich and poor alike) actually live their lives. Faced with a grueling reality that is marked by economic turmoil, relational breakdowns, medical crises and various other uncontrollable circumstances, how many of us opt for a fantasy of hope built on momentary distractions that do nothing but mask our pain?
 Quvenzhané Wallis is now the youngest person to have ever been nominated by the Academy for the Best Actress award.