Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6Two of the last four scripts I’ve reviewed (1) are from authors who began their careers as playwrights. (I don’t want to get too far ahead of this review but) in both cases, I felt the change of venue was [mostly] successful.

I am surprised by this.

You would think that if there were any class of writers who might struggle with the difference in texture between plays and scripts, it would be the people who write plays on a regular basis. If not for the fact that my reading is far ahead of my reviewing, I would test the emerging hypothesis that correlates with this idea by reading other stage-to-screen translations like Rabbit Hole or [my all-time favorite example of this type] Amadeus.

My intuition is that these playwrights were forced by their medium to hone highly prized skills which tend to be neglected by many of us who write solely for film. The two things Martin McDonagh and Alibar/Zeitlin do way better than average are:

1. Dialogue
2. Characterization

There is a lesson in the ensuing success of their scripts for all of us. If no one went to see In Bruges or Beasts of the Southern Wild for their innovative special effects then: why did they go? The answer, I think, reaches back to the American Beauty review:

If you tell it right, they will come.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character.

Part A) We finally have a script with an opening scene voiceover that is not exposition and is not written by the Coens:

HUSHPUPPY (V.O.)
All the time, everywhere,
everything’s organs be beatin’ and
squirtin’ and talkin’ to each other
in ways I can’t understand. Mosta
the time they probably just sayin’
“I’m hungry,” or “I gotta poop,”
but sometimes they talkin’ in
codes.

Hushpuppy’s voiceover lines are giving us thematic exposition. They are telling us what the story we’re about to see will mean when it’s over. Contrast this with the cleanly expositional opening voiceover in American Beauty:

LESTER (V.O.)
My name is Lester Burnham. This is
my neighborhood. This is my street.
This… is my life. I’m forty-two
years old. In less than a year,
I’ll be dead.

And the equally as expositional opening scene voiceover from In Bruges:

RAY (V .0.)
After I killed them I dropped the
gun in the Thames, washed the
residue off my hands in the bathroom
of a Burger king, and walked home to
await instructions. Shortly
thereafter the instructions came
through – “Get the fuck out of
London, you dumb fucking cunts. Get
to Bruges”. I didn’t even know where
Bruges fucking was.

Now, let’s remember back to the opening scene voiceover from No Country for Old Men:

[Edited for lines of dialogue only.]

VOICE OVER
I always knew you had to be willing
to die to even do this job — not to
be glorious. But I don’t want to
push my chips forward and go out and
meet something I don’t understand.

VOICE OVER
You can say it’s my job to fight it
but I don’t know what it is anymore.

VOICE OVER
…More than that, I don’t want to
know. A man would have to put his
soul at hazard.

Strictly speaking, the American Beauty and In Bruges voiceovers are [initially anyway] doing some fairly heavy plot point lifting, while the Beasts of the Southern Wild and No Country for Old Men voiceovers are setting up a thematic vantage point.

They are giving us a metaphor with a view.

As far as the rest of the exposition goes, I thought it was handled with great dexterity. Let me give a few examples of how good writers can convey books of information in a single word, or a small burst of words.

The name Hushpuppy itself has a tinge of oxymoronic flavor in its demand that a small dog be quiet. It also suggests salt water and earthiness. There is no doubting that the girl who responds to this name will be certain things. Most of which only deal incidentally with sugar, spice, and everything nice.

2. How about calling your place of residence The Shacko in the Backo? If this doesn’t also contain a book of information into the characters who choose to live in it then… I don’t understand stories.

3. I cannot cheerlead enough for how there was no statistically significant exposition about the missing mother. Perhaps this was a positive result of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez tendencies, but (whatever the reason) not telling us what happened to Hushpuppy’s mother was an extraordinary ace this script kept up its sleeve.

Part B) The subtext was also at the expert level. Usually I drone on to intolerable lengths in my discussion of this area of scripts. The inevitable result of this is that I shortchange part c to make up for it. Today I will reverse that process by shortchanging this part and droning on in the next.

Part C) In order to rate the character individuation I choose to look, exclusively, at:

WINDELL EMMETT DOUCET, known to all as WINK.

I do that because my reading of this story concludes that it is meant as a realistic close-up on father/daughter relationships in general. By taking an in depth look at Wink, we will be helped out later on when we try to determine if the script succeeds in being thematically complete.

In a nutshell, we will be looking for evidence of Wink’s care and his neglect of Hushpuppy.

From page 7:

Wink lies on his back on the ground. He sees his daughter
watching him, holding the huge sparkler, and they both laugh
with sheer joy.

Hushpuppy stops over him and points a bottle rocket in his
face, the fuse burning. He nods his approval. They watch
the fuse burn down to the last moment. She turns it upward,
and they watch her rocket join a sky filled with pluming
mortars.

Hushpuppy looks at the light flickering across Wink’s faces.
He’s momentarily peaceful, admiring the spectacular display.
Hushpuppy smiles at him with pride. He doesn’t see her.

From page 10:

HUSHPUPPY
Daddy? Feed-up time. Feed-up?

Hushpuppy bangs on the door of the shacko.

HUSHPUPPY (CONT’D)
Daddy?

Nothing.

She goes inside.

The house is empty.

She checks the Shacko for food. Nothing.

[This man has just left his adolescent daughter without explanation or note or food, for an extended period of time.]

From page 16:

Wink pulls Hushpuppy’s drawings off the walls, he flings them
out the door to safety.

Hushpuppy coughs.

Wink has heard. He looks toward the box.

[This same man is now taking a minute to save his adolescent daughter’s drawings from a fire.]

From page 22:

He runs a piece of duct tape across the floor.

WINK
This side is still Wink’s house.
No toys, and no girl stuff over
here.

From page 32:

Hushpuppy lays on the table in pile of empty crab shells.

WINK
Hushpuppy! Did I ever tell you the
story of your conception?

[Wherein this same man tells his adolescent daughter a tall tale that makes her mother a Beautiful Absence in her life.]

I’ll take the penultimate example from page 45:

The screaming chorus FADES and she is alone in her quiet,
eyes darting between Bathsheba and Wink. Courage and
certainly clench inside her her. You listen to your Daddy.

She pulls the rope.

EXT. LEVEE WALL IN THE WATER – DAY
The trip-line releases the detonator.

And the ultimate example from pages 59-60:

Wink runs the kids toward the bus, they pass two busses
labeled for Salt Lake City, Des Moines.

Wink helps Joy, Tee-Lou, and Lizard get on. Then Hushpuppy.

Suddenly Wink’s hand slips out of Hushpuppy’s. He steps away
from the evacuating bus. Hushpuppy turns and the bus door
slams between them.

WINK
(from outside the door)
Make sure you put her somewhere
good ok?

Wink sags. He’s giving her away. He turns to leave..

HUSHPUPPY
(banging on the door)
NO! I ain’t running! No!

Wink walks away from the bus, his chest heaving, his face
clutched in the horror of what he’s done.

I am convinced that today’s writers have rendered a lifelike portrait of a father who is equal parts care and neglect. I am equally as convinced that the feelings this script evokes in its climax have zero to do with its magical bits and everything to do with its real bits. The fact that the authors want to combine these elements and make of them a brand new bayou strain of magical realism is irrelevant to the script’s true resonance.

Unflinching characterization is the most beautiful aspect of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out?

I loved these first 10 pages. They did a magnificent job of hooking my interest to this off beat story. Some of my infatuation may be a result of all the icebergs in this story’s ocean. [In other words, the way the authors handled the exposition was exactly right.]

Still, there was no way I was putting this script down until I discovered its code. I had to know what The Bathtub was, what kind of man lives in a Shacko in the Backo, why a small child has her own separate house, what possible sense could be made of the Aurochs, and what would be the eventual source of the sense of doom that perpetually shadowed these people.

These first 10 pages are excellent.

3. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself?

A) The idea of setting a story like this in a place like this is unique: without question. I loved it. However, the idea of mixing this place and this story with elements of fantasy (what I previously referred to as bayou-centric magical realism DID NOT work for me. I was in love with the real story. The surreal story seemed like so much hot air by comparison.

Part B) In spite of that, I can’t deny that the writers (based on this sample) appear to be master class level in the areas of characterization and dialogue.

4. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story.

Part A) Perhaps this part will give us a little screenwriter’s revenge against our playwriting usurpers? I think so. To say this plot is thin is to be engaging in dizzying understatement.

Summed to a list, we have:

1. A negligent/caring father with a bad heart.
2. An amazing (almost savant-like in some ways) child of the swamp.
3. A precariously balanced geographic basin of plenty on the brink of a hurricane.
4. A decidedly botched rescue and cleanup effort.
5. Aurochs breaking free from the Antarctic ice shelf and washing up on the shores of a Brazilian Favela (from which they make their way to our fantastical bayou).

These elements crash land in Hushpuppy’s world with little more than the surface reasonableness they have at first glance. I mean, it does make sense that people who live in the manner of Wink would try to ride out the hurricane. It also makes sense that these people would not be able to survive the catastrophic effects this hurricane leaves in its wake.

The bad heart and the Aurochs are symbols and they feel like symbols. I love symbolism more than the next reader but even I insist that authors not take their symbols so literally.

[I was tempted to answer this question with the much less wordy… How can it not be thin? It’s only 77 pages THICK.]

Part B) It is really perfect how well this movie demonstrates the fact that script engines are protagonist specific. If this were Wink’s movie the engine would be:

Will the modern world continue to tolerate non-traditional ways of life?

But, this isn’t Wink’s movie; it’s Hushpuppy’s. In that case, the engine is:

How does Hushpuppy survive the fact that she is about to be alone?

Hushpuppy’s search for the answer to the question that drives her is both heartbreaking and, ultimately, redeeming. You cannot read this script without becoming Hushpuppy. If you finish reading it, you will have given thanks to your Wink.

I loved every detail about her quest. This aspect of the script, in my opinion, is exquisitely well done.

Part C) Well, as I’ve hinted at several times, I think there is an attempt at thematic completion by way of the fantastical elements in the script. These elements are there throughout, and I can’t deny they provide some resolution.

Let’s see what shape this resolution takes with a couple of examples from the script. The first is from page 53:

HUSHPUPPY (V.O.)
Strong animals got no mercy.

Cold wind blows them backwards. An old Aurochs falls behind
the pack. Its legs give out and it lays down. It’s not going
to make it.

HUSHPUPPY (V.O.)
They the type of animals that eats
their own Mommas and Daddies.

The Aurochs cannibalize their fallen comrade, ripping skin
and organs in a storm of flesh and gore.

These lines tie into one component of what Wink has been trying to teach Hushpuppy. Remember this from page 49:

WINK
Hey. No crying. Don’t you cry
man. Don’t you cry!

He threatens her with a shoe. Hushpuppy hides behind an
overturned chest.

WINK (CONT’D)
HEY! Don’t cry damn it!

Strength is prized, for sure, but to what end?

A strange calm has settled over Hushpuppy. Almost a smile,
but more of a peace and an affection for her equal. They’re
both children in their way.

HUSHPUPPY
You’re my friend, kind of.

Mother Aurochs grunts, a sentence only Hushpuppy can
understand.

HUSHPUPPY (CONT’D)
I gotta take care of mine.

With weary and clumsy steps, the Aurochs stand and retreat.

This is the answer provided by page 73, But… haven’t we known that all along.

Let’s take a look then at the very last voiceover Hushpuppy gives, from page 76 [as I did with No Country for Old Men, I’ll edit it for dialogue only]:

HUSHPUPPY (V.O.)
When I relax behind my eyes I see
everything that made me flying
around in invisible pieces. When I
look too hard it goes away, but
when it all goes quiet, I see they
are right here.

HUSHPUPPY (V.O.)
I see that I’m a little piece of a
big, big universe, and that makes
things right.

HUSHPUPPY (V.O.)
When I die, the scientists of the
future, they gonna find it all.
They gonna know, once there was a
Hushpuppy, and she lived with her
Daddy in the Bathtub.

Do those lines hold any more of a key to thematic completion?

I am going to argue that they don’t. This is where I feel that the magical realism was not up to the plain old Wink and the plain old Hushpuppy. The theme of this script is:

You can’t weigh love on a balance.

That’s beautifully expressed by this father and this daughter. The Aurochs, to this reader, where a step too far away from the emotional core of the story.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script?

In spite of the fault I found in the last question, this script hit home for me. It made me think not only of the father I want to be to my own children, but of the type of father my father was to me. In some small way [and thanks directly to this script] I threw the balance out the window.

Rating: Worth Reading

Footnotes:

1. The reviewing chronology alluded to was true at the time of first writing. It has now been almost two years between when this review was written, and this publication of it.

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