It's hard to remember exactly—this was during a rough time in my life—but I'm pretty sure the very last time I saw my grandmother, who died less than a year after she was diagnosed with leukemia, I talked to her about "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which had been released that past summer.
The 2012 movie is a harsh, fantastical facsimile of real life, with a great deal to say about love, loss, and family along with issues of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy by way of the active imagination of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in an isolated, semi-transient, quasi-legal community called the Bathtub with her terminally-ill father, Wink (Dwight Henry). It's a movie that plunges its audience back into the raw emotional lessons we first learned as children: Everything dies. That means you. That means everyone you know. And the best-case scenario, via some semblance of natural order, is that you'll outlive the people that made and raised you.
On the day that my grandmother learned she had cancer, she had gone to see her doctor because she had been feeling unusually tired. Up until the day of her diagnosis she was extremely active. She had retired from teaching but she still worked. She volunteered. She was social and on her feet practically nonstop. She had her hands in the lives of everyone she knew. She was a power to be counted on. And then, within a year, she died. Beginning with her diagnosis, I don't think she ever said anything completely honest about her illness to me. I guess this was an attempt to protect me, and although I understand why she did that a lot better now than I did then, I will still tell you—it sucked. It still sucks. But "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" makes it suck a bit less.
In "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," Hushpuppy's world consists of her and her father, who provides what he can for her but struggles to connect with her emotionally as he suffers from a mysterious illness. His waning health makes it urgent that he make sure Hushpuppy is taken care of when he's gone, causing emotional outbursts as he grapples with how to spare his daughter the gruesome facts of life while teaching her how to care for herself. Although Hushpuppy witnesses the debilitating physical effects of Wink's illness, he tries to keep her in the dark about his illness until she confronts him about it. "You think I don't know, man," she tells him tearfully. "You think I don't see."
Hushpuppy believes that she is responsible for curing her father's illness and she sees this event in her life as the beginning of the unraveling of the universe. When a flood destroys the Bathtub—echoes of Hurricane Katrina which happened 10 years ago this month, but the film is never too obvious about referencing this still-exploited national tragedy—her assumptions about reality coming apart are bolstered: The floods are a result of the ice caps melting, causing rising waters and setting forth ancient, ravenous piglike creatures called Aurochs who had been frozen in the ice.
The movie's mythos, mired in a mix of magic realism and folk traditions, expertly captures what it's like to be young when your world is determined only by what others tell you. And the cobbled-together world of the Bathtub—with echoes of films like "Badlands," "Hook," "Gummo," and "George Washington"—illustrates the strength of communities cut off from resources and how they innovate and build worlds to survive. The way it is shot, shabbily but gorgeously, has less of an effect of idealizing the poor than showing the realities of poverty, specifically the way those realities don't yet affect kids the way they do adults. There is charm and beauty in people who navigate their way through irreparably fucked-up situations.
Aware that her father doesn't have much time, convinced the world is coming to an end, Hushpuppy decides she must find her absent mother for guidance. As her father lies dying at home, Hushpuppy runs screaming into the water with several children from the Bathtub orphaned by the flood and reaches the woman she believes is her mother in a crab shack/strip club in a rickety houseboat called Elysium Fields. She listens attentively to the woman as she fries her alligator tail and imparts what is actually some pretty good advice for a 6-year-old—as well as someone like me, whose grandmother is dying: "Lemme tell you something," the woman says, "when you're a child people tell you that everything's gonna be all hunky-dory and all that bullshit, but I'm here to tell you that it's not."
Hushpuppy returns to the remains of the Bathtub with leftover alligator in a brown paper bag, just as the giant Aurochs have made it to what's left of her home. Knowing that weakness makes them hungry, she turns to face them and declares, "I gotta take care of mine." They kneel in recognition of her strength as she feeds her dying father. At a certain point in the film, it doesn't matter what's real or not real in the movie. We may not be pursued by ancient, tusked beasts, but we are constantly at the mercy of powers beyond our control, such as death, time, and change. What is important here is that Hushpuppy believes these things are happening and she responds to them with grace. That statement by Hushpuppy, "I gotta take care of mine," mind you, is less of a call for provincialism than an acknowledgment that too often, especially if you are from a community like the one Hushpuppy comes from (or real-life New Orleans or Sandtown for that matter), no one else will take care of yours.
We didn't speak much about how the movie related to my grandmother—because it was painfully obvious—but I could see it all from a different perspective telling her about it: Wink wants to protect Hushpuppy and Hushpuppy pushes back and so there is a balance, or something resembling one, at least. The movie is very good at displaying the inherent unfairness and chaos of life and illustrates how, in the shadow of great looming beasts that want to destroy us, all we can do is the little we can. Hushpuppy puts all this responsibility on herself, which is foolish but makes sense. I did this too. It's not important that you fix your universe, but that you be with your dying dad and feed him some alligator or that you tell the most important person in your life who is dying, whose body doesn't seem to belong to them anymore, about a movie that means a great deal to you.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild," directed by Benh Zeitlin, will play on Aug. 20 on Federal Hill as part of the American Visionary Art Museum's Flicks From the Hill series. For more information visit avam.org.