I think it’s safe to say that Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, and written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on her play, is unlike any movie I’ve seen before. I was worried that if would fall into the trap that so many movies make in examining African-American culture, that it would somehow stoop to presenting protagonists as “magic Negroes.” This film does not do that, although it does represent the place they live as something wholly apart from America.
The setting is an island off the coast of Louisiana that the residents call The Bathtub, and although I’ve never been there, I’ve read enough about coastal Louisiana to know it is remote and has a distinct culture. As the film opens, it is presented as something of a fecund paradise, as described by our protagonist, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy. There is plenty to eat and drink and Hushpuppy tells us that they have more holidays than anyone else. She even has her own house, separate from her father’s. Her mother, who was so beautiful that water would boil just be her presence, is dead.
This paradise starts to see wrinkles when her father goes missing. Hushpuppy tells us that if he doesn’t turn up soon, she’ll have to eat her pets. He does return, wearing a hospital gown. Another problem is a coming storm, which can’t help but remind us of Hurricane Katrina. Everyone seems aware that The Bathtub may soon be under water, but a hard core knot of residents stay behind.
Beasts of the Southern Wild succeeds in presenting a view of a place none of us are likely to visit, with a rich authenticity (I had a craving for seafood after seeing so many crabs and crayfish). Secondly, it presents an unusual, but totally believable relationship between Hushpuppy and her father. He teaches her self-reliance, like handfishing for catfish, or breaking a crab open with her bare hands (after which she flexes her guns). Finally, the film is about a way of life that is disappearing, symbolized by the metaphor of ancient animals, called aurochs (giant boars) that come unfrozen from ice and rumble toward The Bathtub. Are they representative of the creep of modern life? I don’t think so–they’re more a representation of the buried past, which is just as threatening to this isolated community.
Perhaps this is why the residents, when they are finally evacuated from The Bathtub and sent to a shelter, want nothing more than to get back. In a sense, they are the beasts of the southern wild, not suited for the comforts of modernity. Hushpuppy thinks the shelter doesn’t look like a prison, which she is led to believe, but instead a “fish tank without water.” Ordinarily, when we hear about holdouts who won’t leave their homes during natural disasters, we think they’re nuts. This story is from their point of view, and we side with them.
The two leads are amateur actors. Dwight Henry is Wink, the father, who plays the father with a startling sense of reality. He knows he’s dying, and wants to prepare Hushpuppy for the future, but is not a saintly figure as might be played by Will Smith. This guy can get mad, and sometimes unreasonably so. And Hushpuppy is played amazingly by Quvenzhané Wallis, a major find by Zeitlin. She occupies the center of this film like the eye of a hurricane, wandering around in her white Wellington boots, an explosion of hair on her head. Her handling of the voiceover narration is terrific, such as when she says that the universe relies on everything being properly connected, and when her Daddy told her that when he got tired of drinking beer and catching catfish, she should put him in the boat, push it adrift, and set it on fire.
That boat is the bed of an old pickup truck, and I won’t soon forget the image of the two of them, out on the water. Though the film is a bit thin, plot-wise (even at only 93 minutes, it feels stretched) but the imagery and performances by Wallis and Henry resonate long after the closing credits.
My grade for Beasts of the Southern Wild: A-.