Thousands of movies have been made on the theme of overcoming adversity. In fact, “the hero’s journey,” in which a reluctant protagonist is thrown out of his routine existence and into a heroic undertaking that threatens his life, reveals his strengths, and transforms him for the better, is a classic movie-making formula. The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Avatar, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Beverly Hills Cop are all well-known examples of the hero’s journey told in film.
Because the purpose of The MOON is to recommend “movies you might’ve missed,” allow us to recommend two independent movies that illustrate the strengths revealed through adversity. Coincidentally, both are set in Louisiana among underclass groups of people.
Beasts of the Southern Wild features an astounding portrayal by six-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis of a five-year-old child named Hushpuppy, who lives with her dying father in a ramshackle South Louisiana community appropriately named “The Bathtub.” Nothing about Hushpuppy’s life is easy: her mother ran away when she was an infant; her father is sick, unemployed, alcoholic, and has a temper; she is surrounded by drunks and misfits who have sought refuge in The Bathtub because they weren’t really cut out for life on ‘the dry side” of the levee.
But Hushpuppy—and all The Bathtub residents—have their own strategies for survival. They eat from the abundance that nature offers them, the adults somehow have enough income to keep themselves in booze and cigarettes, and invent holidays and parades for every conceivable occasion. Hushpuppy takes refuge in animals and her art, believing that “when the scientists of the future” find it, they will know that “once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”
Hushpuppy loses everything that a child can lose, yet finds within herself the strength to go on.
Although the film sparked controversy because of the violence, child endangerment, and generally poor depiction of adults portrayed, it also received glowing reviews. Metacritic, which compiles aggregate ratings from the number of positive and negative critical reviews of films, assigned Beasts an 86/100 rating. Rotten Tomatoes reported a positive (“Fresh”) rating from 122 reviewers, against 19 negative ones, and concluded, “Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fantastical, emotionally powerful journey and a strong case of filmmaking that values imagination over money.”
The film was a 2012 “Critics’ Pick” by the reviewers of The New York Times, where critic A.O. Scott called it, a “blast of sheer, improbable joy, a boisterous, thrilling action movie with a protagonist who can hold her own… Hushpuppy, the 6-year-old heroine of Beasts of the Southern Wild, has a smile to charm fish out of the water and a scowl so fierce it can stop monsters in their tracks. The movie, a passionate and unruly explosion of Americana, directed by Benh Zeitlin, winks at skepticism, laughs at sober analysis and stares down criticism.” Scott later ranked the film third best film of 2012. Its star, Wallis, became the youngest person ever nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress category. She didn’t win, but she could have. Surely she’ll be back.
Trouble the Water is a harrowing account of one Lower Ninth Ward couple’s experience of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Amateur filmmaker Kimberly Rivers Roberts, camera shaking at every turn, had the foresight to film her neighborhood as the storm approached, “to show people we had a world.” We watch from the Roberts’ attic as the floodwaters rise. When the battery gives out, the screen goes black. This was the reality of folks who didn’t have the resources to leave before the storm. They had no way of knowing that it would be days before first responders would even attempt to rescue them.
Roberts’ husband and brother take matters into their own hands, however, wading out into chest deep water with a buoyant punching bag to rescue their neighbors. Later, they commandeer a rowboat, sans oars, and use it to ferry people and possessions to drier ground.
As the movie progresses (with the filmmaking baton passed to professionals Tia Lessin and Carl Deal), we learn that Katrina was only one of many disasters to have befallen the Roberts. Kimberly’s mother died of AIDS when her daughter was only 13 and she had to protect herself from men who wanted to rape her or pimp her out; husband Scott never finished high school so has a hard time finding decent employment. They’ve lived as street hustlers, but are determined to use the devastation of Katrina as a “clean slate” to start their lives over again. Scott likes the way he feels after being of service to his neighbors and wants “to do everything right” this time. Kimberly is an aspiring hip-hop artist (Black Kold Madina), whose career has been boosted by her portrayal of herself in Trouble the Water. When she performs her song, “Amazing,” about her own personal triumphs over adversity, we are reminded all over again of the truth that every person is gifted; every person has truth and beauty to reveal.
Trouble the Water was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2009 and an Emmy Award for best informational program in 2010. It won the Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Grand Jury Award, The Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights, and the Working Films Award at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Festival. It also won the Special Jury Prize at the 2008 AFI/Silverdocs Festival, the IFC Gotham Award for best documentary, Best Documentary of 2008 by the American Film Critics Association, and came in 2nd place for the National Film Critics Circle Award.
Check them both out.