Yesterday I had the opportunity to see Benh Zeitlin’s recently released, acclaimed and excellent Beasts of the southern wild. The film follows the life of Hushpuppy, a six year-old girl, in The Bathtub, a fictional island based in Louisiana and subject to seasonal flooding. Here’s the trailer:
Since having recently watched again Taika Waititi’s Boy (2010), focussing on the life of an eleven year-old in east coast New Zealand in the eighties and unexpected the return of his dad, I was struck yesterday with the many similarities the two films shared. (Before I continue, note that this post will necessarily discuss important plot points, for which reason you may want to leave until you have seen both the films, but you could probably read it without having seen the films too). Here’s the trailer for Boy if you haven’t managed to get around to seeing it yet, which you most definitely unequivocally should:
Both films blend a generally realist approach with elements of childhood fantasy/perspective; both films contrast the failures of not-wholly-incompetent fathers and other men in the community with socially strong female characters; and both Boy and Hushpuppy more or less attempt to fill the parental role of responsibility and independence in society under the shadow of their fathers’ failures and mothers’ absences. In Boy we learn that Boy’s mother died in childbirth. Boy’s younger brother feels some responsibility for this, and the two go often to visit her in the cementary. The absence of Hushpuppy’s mother in Beasts is treated with a little more ambiguity. Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, tells her that her mother left their home some time ago.
Though in both films the mother is absent physically, an ideal form of her is present in the minds of her children and partners. Hushpuppy draws pictures of her mother and symbolises her with a basketball top from whom she receives motherly affirmations in conversation. Both Alamein (Boy’s father) and Wink recall their love for and the beauty of the mothers. Here the theme can be extended: The mother is absent, yet not only in relation to her children, but to her partner, as a companion.
Boy’s absence of mother and, to an extent, father is counteracted through his relation to his aunty (whom he sees as a kind of hero in driving the school bus, acting as postwoman for the town, and running a shop) and loving grandmother (on his father’s side) who takes care of Boy, his brother and some other children in the community. His aunty steps in to protect him when his father returns angry. A similar figure to the aunty in Beasts is Miss Bathsheba, a hardened island dweller who acts as a teacher for the children and demonstrates the seriousness of their situation, checking up on a neglected Wink, providing her medicine for her sick father, and independently confronting three men in the community for actions that could mean the end of them all. Contrast these figures with Alamein, who ostensibly returns to Boy and Rocky after so many years, but is actually in need of money, the two other members of his gang, Crazy horses, who can only be understood comically, along with the brief run-in with some angry pot dealers. In Beasts, Wink spends his time drinking, disappears for days at a time, directs bursts of anger toward his daughter and doesn’t allow her to cry.
A further contrast exists between the incompetency of male adults and the promise of male children. In Boy, though women effectively run the community, it is boys and young men that Alamein wants to recruit to his gang. They are seen as the ones with leadership potential, the ones who hold promise, but somehow something gets lost on the way there. In Beasts, Wink dresses his daughter as boys would be dressed in the community; uses words like ‘girl’, ‘sissy’ and ‘pussy’ pejoratively to steer her away from what the community understands as feminine; and enjoins her to arm wrestling, breaking crabs with her hands and refraining from crying. Masculinity holds promise in its childhood form but when males come of age in the communities, they flee from their roles and their female counterparts pick up the pieces.
The absent mother in these two films is an important theme in a society coming to terms with its patriarchal foundations and lack of gender equality. This is in no way an attempt at some ultra-conservative polemic against or undermining of an increasingly feminist society. But what if this is feminism inverted? The struggle is not opposed to feminism, but is in the same boat as an important gender issue. Masculinity has too become weakness. For example, consider the likes of male suicide rates (380 in 2010 against 142 female) and boys struggling in school (also). Yet go further. Is it taboo to say there is a masculine struggle not just in disproportionate suicides and education performance but in cases where men are the cause of other struggles? The men in the films tend towards neglect, alcohol and drug abuse, and inconsistent emotional responses to their children. Surely something is not right if a large number of young men are ending their lives? Something is also not right then if men are neglecting their responsibilities to family. It remains important to consider the needs of the primary victims. However, in a sense, these fathers have also become victims, of the pressures of life and their own failures.