The Movie: Beasts of the Southern Wild at Sundance Cinemas in the University District.
The Dinner: a whole-roasted chicken from West Seattle Thriftway.
The Screenplate: The Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild is not 2012's best movie, but if there were a statuette awarded for degree of difficulty, this ambient, winning fable--set almost literally underwater in the Southern Louisiana swamp with a cast of non-actors (the male lead is portrayed by local baker Dwight Henry; the female lead, Quvenzhane Wallis, was six during production)--would prevail unanimously.
Wallis plays Hushpuppy; Henry her sickly, alcoholic father (Wallis is nominated for an Oscar alongside the film, but Henry's actually more deserving of such a distinction). But to call someone an alcoholic 'round these parts is not a pejorative so much as a statement of cultural normalcy. Hushpuppy's mother is no longer alive, except in Hushpuppy's dreams, and the young girl lives in a stilt house across a verdant marshland from her dad's ramshackle home. When it's time to eat, Henry rings a bell and yells "feed-up time!", at which point the pair shares a whole roasted chicken--each and every night--that's undoubtedly caught and killed on premises.
Beasts is a fable, so it requires its viewer to suppress his or her sense of reality to fully appreciate its virtues. Squalor permeates the village--called the Bathtub--in which the film is set, yet its citizens seem mostly overjoyed to be in each other's company, and view the industrialized world across the bay with disdain. When a great flood comes--clearly a stand-in for Katrina, although that devastating storm is never referred to by name--the locals float around on makeshift boats to makeshift bars, where the bounty of the sea is enjoyed by all, alongside a seemingly never-ending supply of distilled swill in unmarked glass bottles.
Mid-film, a medical team from the civilized world swoops in and forcibly evacuates the Bathtub, committing Hushpuppy's father to a medical ward on dry land and enrolling Hushpuppy in a makeshift primary school on the same premises. Throughout most of the film, she appears to defy gender, her afro unkempt and her clothing spare and boyish. So the sight of Hushpuppy in a prim dress with little-girl braids is nothing short of riveting, meant to signify the stark difference between bayou life and what the rest of America might consider sanitary.
While few would argue that New Orleanians who refused to flee the city as Katrina approached made a sound decision, Beasts does an amazingly deft job of reflecting their perspective without belittling it. If you're living a unique way of life that's sure to fade should you be uprooted, is it worth trying to cheat death in order to retain it? Beasts, with its spare script and haunting score, makes a humble yet powerful argument in the affirmative. The Bathtub might technically be part of America, but it's got a culture all its own; the same could be said for New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. To expect conformity is at least as absurd as staying in one's residence in the eye of a life-threatening natural disaster (or man-made levee failure, as the government's harshest critics would claim in Katrina's wake).
Toward the end of the movie, Hushpuppy hands her father a basket of what look to be hushpuppies. And, locally, Catfish Corner serves very good hushpuppies. But the dish is almost too elaborate--or, more acutely, fried--for a town whose inhabitants live off the land and sea without more than heating or shelling their food. Hence, it's a supermarket deli staple, the whole-roasted chicken, which represents a better culinary match for the film, and West Seattle Thriftway cooks a bird as well as any of its counterparts, if not the self-taught chefs of the Bathtub.