Some films indulge in filth; some celebrate beauty. And some – like Beasts of the Southern Wild – capture the exquisite tension between both that best defines this world, one that is scarred by sin yet on the brink of the glorious kingdom to come.
A small movie slowly making its way through theaters, Beasts is set in a lowland community whose impoverished residents have refused to move to higher ground (they proudly call their neighborhood the Bathtub). The story is told through the eyes and voice of little Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a force of a girl who lives in a squalid state with her well-meaning but overwhelmed and often-drunk father (Dwight Henry). Yet this isn’t a piece of gritty verite; Beasts of the Southern Wild also makes room for flights of magical realism, especially when we learn about - and see - giant prehistoric creatures arising from the melting polar ice caps and making their way towards Hushpuppy’s home.
The result is a wild conglomeration of startling originality. In its own weird way, Beasts combines fantasy, social realism and a sense of apocalyptic urgency. It's a post-Katrina fairy tale made from real mud.
In this muck, though, there is beauty to be found, even if it’s flecked with dirt. As Hushpuppy and her father float across the bayou on a raft made from the back of a pickup truck, the water is quiet, serene, comforting – until they pass by a rotting animal corpse. Later, fireworks burst from the sparklers in Hushpuppy’s hands as she runs, looking almost like the wings of an angel until we notice the torn, grimy clothes she wears.
In this muck, though, there is beauty to be found, even if it’s flecked with dirt.
In a chapter on beauty in Wisdom & Wonder, a new collection of writings by Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian described our current state as it compares to both the paradise that God created in Eden and the restored creation that is yet to come. “Between those two there now stands the marred beauty of our sinful condition,” he wrote, “a situation that, no matter how lovely and exalted it may still be, nevertheless no longer corresponds to what once existed, and is far from reaching the beauty that will soon be revealed to us.”
The tricky part about the beauty of this in-between state is that it’s so intricately tied to the sin. It’s not as if Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and (of course) Sundays are dedicated to peace, love and understanding, while all the ugly stuff goes down on the other days of the week. It’s not as if horror exists only in, say, North Korea, while North America is a place of bliss. (How many ways do we North Americans nevertheless try to convince ourselves of this?)
Instead, our current beauty comes blemished. It’s Hushpuppy enthralled by delicate droplets of rain, even as they accumulate to threaten her home. It’s a dance with a lost mother, even if it must take place in a brothel. It’s in these words from a teacher to her students - "You got to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are” – even as the community in which they live is locked in a Darwinian struggle for survival. It’s in Hushpuppy again, picking up a chick, listening to its heartbeat and performing just such care.
We see the potential in each of these moments for what Kuyper called the “exalted beauty” of the kingdom to come. “Scripture even uses a special word for that more exalted beauty of the coming world, and repeatedly describes what will come at that time as the kingdom of glory,” he wrote. “No matter how beautiful in many respects this earth may already be, it is not yet glorious. That more exalted beauty, called ‘glory,’ comes only in the hereafter.”
True, but at least Beasts offers a glimpse.
What Do You Think?
- Have you seen Beasts of the Southern Wild?
- What other movies have captured “the marred beauty of our sinful condition?”
- Where have you seen this marred beauty in your life?