Monday, March 4, 2013

Hushpuppy: Can She Really Stop the Beasts of the Southern Wild?

After watching the Oscars, I was reminded of my reaction to Beasts of the Southern  Wild. It was a movie that disturbed me. I enjoyed the artistry and rich atmospheric quality that created a dreamlike blurring of reality and fantasy. I liked how it mirrored the young girl, Hushpuppy's, developmental age. It’s an age where there are still fuzzy boundaries between reality and fantasy which allow children to still believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. It’s also a time when children are fascinated by their surroundings: we see Hushpuppy with the creatures she cares for and being absorbed in this spit of land surrounded by water and sky. “Up in the dry world, they got none of what we got, “she says.  We see her sense of wonder and her awareness of being connected to all things. Yet we also hear her worries and uncertainties. While I appreciate her childlike wonder, I worried about the things that scared her and the lack of caring adults who could help her find answers and offer reassurance. 

Hushpuppy has already been abandoned by her mother and has a volatile relationship with her father, Wink.  We don’t know why but he leaves her to live alone while he lives somewhere else.  He drinks and is unreliable.  For days at a time she is left alone without food or the substitute care of another adult. He has a medical condition which he refused to tell her about and pushes her away when she asks.    Children in the best of circumstances have fears of abandonment. She is already a quasi orphan and is now being asked to manage losing her remaining parent. Yet, he is all she has, so Hushpuppy remains loyal to him.Having worked in foster care, I have seen children treated very harshly by biological parents, yet stay loyal even when they have been abused. Belonging and being attached is a biological imperative. Children need adults to care for them.   Hushpuppy is no exception. While her father attempts to teach her some survival skill or tell her she’s “the Boss,” he doesn’t give her what she most needs-- his attention and consistent care.   

He, in fact, again puts her in danger by ignoring an evacuation order and leaves her to ride out a hurricane alone. Hurricanes are frightening events and do real- not imagined- damage. Why didn’t Wink make his child’s safety a priority?  Riding out a hurricane alone is a daunting and frightening task. Although the movie portrays this as her facing down the boar- like beasts, I really wonder if a child this young can possibly feel empowered in such a situation. I would think instead they’d feel traumatized.

Perhaps children in difficult situations sometimes can manage, yet not likely without scars. We give our children small tasks of mastery, not overwhelming ones, to develop resilience and strength.  Another factor that builds resilience in children is having a reliable adult who can mentor and protect them. For some of the children I’ve seen in foster care it is often a grandmother or even an older sibling who provides a tangible experience of connection and love. I don’t think this existed for Hushpuppy.  

While the Bathtub is a tight knit community, it did not on any consistent basis seem to watch over her. One scene shows the school teacher noticing that Hushpuppy is alone after school. She asks Hushpuppy whether she’d like to come have a meal with her, but Hushpuppy declines. Certainly the teacher knows Hushpuppy’s plight.    Why wasn’t it clear that more active involvement and caretaking were needed? It does not seem that this community provided the kind of encircling support that could have acted to counter-balance to her father’s neglect or build the strength needed to fend off the beasts. I suspect she felt relief and gratitude for having survived, but I doubt that she built strength. More likely nightmares.       

One of the more heart breaking scenes for me is when Hushpuppy searches for her mother. We see the need and longing that pulls her out to the water where she says her mother swam away. The fantasy scene in the watery brothel has her dancing with someone we take to be her mother, when she says, “This is my favorite thing: being lifted.” So we are reminded of how little loving touch she has received and how much she is in need of it. Children need loving touch and tactile reassurance.   Hushpuppy has none of this.  Secure attachment is what makes children feel important and secure. It ‘s what makes the world safe and  predictable for them.  

Perhaps my reaction to his movie is so strong because I’ve seen too many adults who grew up with insecure attachment and trauma. I feel that portraying this child as resilient and able to manage against terrible odds is something of a fable.  It’s a highly unlikely scenario that too easily glosses over the real trauma Hushpuppy is forced to endure.  

I suspect I’ll see Hushpuppy in therapy in a few years. She’ll be struggling with low self esteem, symptoms of PTSD, anxiety or depression, and difficulties with relationships. 

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