Beasts of the Southern Wild is everything I can ask for in a movie. Fiercely beautiful and sincere, this feature presents a simple story that is as exquisite as it is savage; visually poetic and triumphant.
The film, headed up by first-time director Benh Zeitlin, chronicles the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, living out an atypical life immersed in extreme poverty and characterized by proud defiance. The tale is set in an isolated bayou, separated from New Orleans by an enormous levee. The ramshackle community, situated on the wrong side of the levee, is affectionately known as “The Bathtub,” home to a collection of human detritus. Satisfied with their derelict homestead, the residents of The Bathtub revel in festivities and teach their children to be survivors. “I am meat, ya’ll asses meat,” proclaims one Bathtub native to a group of children. “Everything is part of the buffet of the universe.” Meat – and the death it takes to obtain it – is a central symbolin the film. Wink teaches Hushpuppy to catch fish with her bare hands, farm animals decay on the flooded landscape after an earth-shattering storm, alligators are shot and deep fried. And alone in her house, Hushpuppy proclaims with a raw bluntness, “if Daddy don’t get home soon, it’s gonna be time for me to start eating my pets.”
The film is at first a rugged telling of a community identifying so deeply with their homeland that they refuse to leave when a great storm threatens. Parallel to this runs the story of Hushpuppy and her daddy. What at first seems to be a strange, if not downright neglectful relationship culminates into an understanding that what they have is deep. Their love is primal; a wild and natural affection one might see between lions and their cubs, or killer whales. These two stories are intertwined and consummate, blending poetic vignettes of glaciers cracking and roaming arctic beasts with stark realism. Myth and matter are interwoven. The Bathtub residents are preparing for a disaster not unlike Hurricane Katrina, and Wink and Hushpuppy have their own storms to face.
The bold six year-old is the star of this feature, no doubt about it. Played by Quvenzhane Wallis, Hushpuppy is a thunderbolt in a community that expects nothing less of their offspring. This disheveled, unkempt child makes complex observations about the fine tunings of the universe one moment, and relishes in the sound of her own scream the next. Hushpuppy is at once a vulnerable child yearning for affection and a wild and uncanny creature quite capable of fending for herself. Her father, like many of his neighbors, relies on alcohol to brace him. His moods are erratic as a result. Early in the film Wink is hospitalized, disappearing for a day and a night. But Hushpuppy is hardly nonplused by his absence, settling for a canned cat food supper that she cooks by lighting the gas stovetop with a blowtorch.
The visuals in this film are radiant, poetic. Swirling dust is captured in sunlight, rain is caught glinting on tin roofs and bare skin. Hushpuppy is frequently surrounded by bright, sparkling lights. She’s captured twirling amongst firecrackers in the beginning of the movie, and towards the end Hushpuppy and her band of orphaned friends are held and rocked side to side by mothering prostitutes in the soft, hazy glow of a saloon. The film constantly alludes to itself. Ancient cave-drawings are tattooed on a woman’s thigh, and Hushpuppy draws stick figures with charcoal, stating that, “in a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know that once there was Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”
The film bears an overall emphasis on wholeness. The Bathtub residents are one with their land, and Hushpuppy proclaims that, “the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.” One of the strongest scenes in the movie features a tugboat captain who saves his lunch wrappers, littering the floor of his vessel with chicken biscuit papers because it makes him feel cohesive. “I wanna be cohesive,” says Hushpuppy. “Oh you will be,” replies the captain. “I got no doubt in my mind.”
Aurochs, the gargantuan ice-age beast, are another reoccurring symbol in the film. At first their appearance coincides with disaster and fear. A herd rampages through the town, devastating The Bathtub between takes of a hurricane rolling in. The boar-like creatures feast on a fallen comrade as Hushpuppy soliloquies on the brutality of life. Aurochs are devastatingly powerful beasts, identified with the series of hardships that fall upon Hushpuppy and The Bathtub. Yet as the film progresses, a kinship and likeness develop between the people and the wild animals, culminating in Hushpuppy’s final encounter with Aurochs. “You’re my friend, kind of,” she says simply to the great monster kneeling before her. And this is why the movie is so fiercely tender and wonderful. The characters don’t ever escape the hardships, but they master them. At six years old, little Hushpuppy learns that trials are a necessity of life. “Everyone loses the thing that made them,” sheproclaims. The wildness of the world calls to that wild part in our souls. Hushpuppy knows the call. She listens for it in the heartbeat of every creature she comes across. And this is the triumph: that in the midst of the hardships there is a perseverance that can be clung to. The film concludes with the rag-tag group of homeless souls traversing a narrow road with the waters lapping up on either side. There is no going back. And they are moving onward, triumphant.