Southern Bêtes (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Paperboy)

Like Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010), Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) tells a story about a resourceful young girl from a poor community that’s been left to fend for itself, but here the movie’s distrust of mainstream society generally, and the federal government in particular, is even more pronounced. The story takes place in a Louisiana shantytown called the Bathtub, which is located on an island cut off from the civilized world by the levees. The heroine, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), is about five or six and lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who’s violent and unstable but cares deeply for the girl. To say that life in the Bathtub is far from perfect would be an understatement, but the characters (and it seems the filmmakers) regard living like a wild animal as preferable to, and more environmentally friendly than, life in polite society. When the characters are taken against their will to an antiseptic government shelter, Hushpuppy laments in voice-over that here, “When an animal gets sick, they plug it into the wall.” Then again, contrary to Wink’s assertion that the Bathtub is the most beautiful place in the world, the movie doesn’t make poverty look very appealing as an alternative lifestyle, and in any case, it’s not necessary to agree with the film in order to be moved by its story. I think it’s best to approach the movie as a sort of fairy tale about a young girl and a deeply flawed father figure, and like many fairy tales, it has a way of bypassing one’s common sense and appealing directly to the viewer’s emotions.

Although it opens with the murder of a racist sheriff in rural Florida in 1969 and the plot hinges on a possible miscarriage of justice, I’m not sure if Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012) has a coherent political agenda; ultimately, the film isn’t about inequality or the American justice system but sexual masochism. The story begins with a reporter from a Miami newspaper, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), and his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), arriving in the former’s hometown to investigate the sheriff’s murder and the subsequent conviction of a man named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), whom the film goes out of its way to make as loathsome as possible. (That he’s an unabashed racist is almost a matter of course.) However, as in Monster’s Ball (2001), which Daniels produced but didn’t direct, the death row business is primarily a device for bringing together two people who otherwise wouldn’t meet — in this case, Ward’s horny younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron), and a horny middle-aged woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who writes love letters to men in prison. Although he could easily find a girl his own age, Jack wants to sleep with Charlotte (who doesn’t think of him that way), and Ward shares her taste for rough trade. Very rough. This is consistently gripping and very well acted, but the story takes so many unpleasant turns towards the end that I was reminded more of Mel Gibson than Tennessee Williams.