"Beasts of the Southern Wild" has come in for criticism as "disaster tourism," a valorization of poverty and a dangerous paean to those who court death and then need the government to help them pick up the pieces. But this is wrongheaded. The film doesn't celebrate poverty — it celebrates autonomy, whether in a community's choice to rebuild against the odds or a young girl's desire to let her hair grow out, untamed.
Happiness, at its root, may be cracked crab and cold beer, not well-kept lawns and big televisions. What The Bathtub lacks in amenities, it more than makes up for in spirit. Remember, Hushpuppy and her fellow Delta denizens are no more responsible for hurricanes and floods than Pi is for the sinking of his ship. They are not the ones who drive the cars, fly the planes, and keep the A/C on 65 throughout the Southern summer; they are not the ones who do all these things and then demand that gas stay below $4 and vote out the congresspeople who support a tax on carbon. We are.
In the end, it is her own encounter with bureaucracy, the relief workers who try to make her fit their image of a little girl, pigtails and all, that sends Hushpuppy on her final journey. "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right," she says. Or, as Pi puts it, "I had to get back to the world, or die trying." And so she and her brethren march homeward, the score's soaring trumpets bearing them against the current. It is a moment no less miraculous than Pi's rediscovery of the world.
Other films this year may have been more tightly scripted, more fluidly framed, more realistic in their content, politics, and emotional bent. But "Life of Pi" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" will share the first spot on my year-end top ten list because none made me feel more deeply cinema's ability to magic into existence that which we can only believe in, or doubt.
Because Pi and Hushpuppy, survivors of shipwrecks great and small, never achieve, and never strive for, the power to tame nature, to know God. Instead, they test the waters of their own courage, and in the process bring together the layers of lived experience — animal, human, spiritual — into something that sounds like harmony.
"Life of Pi" is now playing in theaters nationwide. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is available today on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD. Catch TOH!'s interviews with Suraj Sharma and Benh Zeitlin here and here.