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Friday, February 23, 2024

The Maturing Moviegoer: Beasts of the College Town

Eli Flesch
Eli Flesch

I spent the better part of my 18 years in the land of milk, honey and $11 craft sandwiches: Los Angeles. Growing up in the City of Angels has undeniably affected my coming of age (as well as my radical vocabulary). To help understand both the visible and invisible influences of place on coming of age, we’ll use Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 adaption of Lucy Alibar’s one-act play, Juicy and Delicious.

I saw the movie twice, the first time after it came out, and the second last Saturday night, with a couple of Natural Lights in my belly. The second time was tremendously better (maybe because of the Nattys). This film tells the story of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old resident of the “Bathtub,” a poor, isolated community in New Orleans threatened by storms and rising sea levels.

Hushpuppy is by and large a miniature version of her ailing father, Wink. In fact, he often refers to her as his ‘man’ or hopes she will one day become ‘king’ of the Bathtub. As a consequence of these descriptions and her inner resolve, Hushpuppy’s six-year-old frame carries the soul of a person sculpted, fired and glazed with age.

The interactions Hushpuppy has with her surroundings help demonstrate a need for self sufficiency. When I describe the Bathtub as poor, I may be doing it a favor; the community is decrepit. The inhabitants live only off with what they can literally get their hands on — Hushpuppy grasps and kills her very own catfish in one scene. The only time getting food in LA is hard is when you have to go half a mile or more down Wilshire at rush hour (joke for Los Angeles residents only).

Of course, catching fish bare-handed was intrinsic to Hushpuppy’s situation. It is of utmost importance to her. She needs to be fed. For most college students, our issues are more complicated than a base desire for food. Now, I don’t want this column to turn into something that dignifies so-called “first-world problems.” That’s for the internet memes.

Adjusting to new places, especially in college, can be a challenge. Reconciling departure from home with what seems like the possibility to go anywhere can be tough. Although not from Beasts of the Southern Wild, one of my favorite analyses on the power of home comes from Furio Giunta, a mobster in HBO’s “The Sopranos.” On returning to Italy for a funeral, he exclaims to a friend that “When I saw Naples from that airplane, I got a hard on.” His friend replies, “What do you expect, it’s home.”

Those lines deserve to be chiseled in stone. The thought of home and childhood are connotated with simplicity and comfort. Streets feel like old friends. The destruction of familiar buildings feels like a personal affront. In contrast, new cities and towns are strangers.

I’m often amazed by how many people say that they fell in love with their school immediately. Relax. Christ. I suspect part of it is the mentality that for $30,000 plus, not loving your school equates to educational heresy. Another factor is the idealization of college by media. There are infinitely many more college comedies than college dramas. If a person isn’t living up to the picture perfect image, they may feel like they’re not getting the full college experience. I failed Math 16B. That was far from ideal.

Can you really love a new place immediately? I’m like Furio — when an aerial Los Angeles comes into view, I’m off to the airplane’s bathroom hoping the sound of the engine will drown out the sound of the ‘Angelino Special’ that I’m about to rub out. That’s 18 years in the making.

That’s why Wink would rather die than leave the Bathtub. It’s why Hushpuppy, even at six, recognizes the power that place has over people. When Wink dies, he is burned and set afloat. What a perfect way to be returned to home.

Here’s my expert opinion: be honest with yourself. Being able to recognize what you like and dislike about a place is actually beneficial. It allows you to humor the bad and adapt easier. Case in point: If you live in Tercero and say you don’t mind the smell of cow shit, you’re doing the cows a favor. They smell like shit. No one digs that.

To call ELI FLESCH a “Segundo Elitist,” you can reach him at ekflesch@ucdavis.edu or tweet him @eliflesch.



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