I recently read The Running Man, the Stephen King novel on which the Arnold Schwarzenegger film was based. King’s novel—in addition to being superior to the movie and a nifty little bit of pulp storytelling—is an almost perfect window into the fears that swirled about in the early 1980s (the book was published in 1982). Smog! Ozone depletion! Air pollution! The corrupting effect of television! The coarsening of society! Corporate pollution! Airplane hijackings! Street crime! All of this and more, keeping you up night after night!
In its own way, Beasts of the Southern Wild is very similar. I imagine audiences watching this film in 30 years and thinking “Huh. So that’s what people in the early 2010s were freaked out about.” The film—a largely plotless, meandering look at the life of the impoverished child Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her alcoholic, abusive father Wink (Dwight Henry) as they try to survive a flooded-out Gulf Coast community known as The Bathtub—is less interesting as story (or, frankly, as filmmaking) than for what it tells us about the fears of our time.
Global warming! Flooding! Poverty! The breakdown of the family! The intrusion of incompetent federal government agents into local affairs! Healthcare! These are America’s concerns in the year of our lord 2012.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is largely lost within itself, like a novel that spends pages and pages describing the curve of a tree root and the feel of wind on skin for every sentence moving the story along. It is more concerned with scene-setting than character, a choice that is made all the more frustrating by the film’s genuinely affecting ending.