Beasts of the Southern Wild introduces audiences to Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a six-year-old girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in the Bathtub, a fictional town south of New Orleans. As Hushpuppy tells us, “the Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” Its residents are a close-knit community, but they live in an area that another, larger community (“the dry world”) has declared to be a Mandatory Evacuation Zone. The Bathtub sits past the levee in a part of the bayou that has been officially surrendered to the sea. As such, its residents have their freedom, but they pay the price when a great storm covers their homes with water. To make matters worse, Wink is sick; he must strive against his own illness to teach his daughter to take care of herself because he knows he won’t be around for much longer.
The fears that populate Hushpuppy’s mind assume the form of the Aurochs, ancient wild beasts that, according to legend, once roamed the land and ate little girls like Hushpuppy for breakfast.
The giant ox-like creatures had been locked away by the Ice Age, but through Hushpuppy’s imagination, we see great shelves of polar ice cracking and falling into the sea, releasing the frightful Aurochs from their frozen prison. Hushpuppy tells us that “the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe would get busted.” Far away at another spot on the planet, the great Aurochs come to life out of floating blocks of ice. Hushpuppy knows they’re headed straight for the Bathtub.
This is a movie so cram-packed with arresting visuals — tubs of wriggling crawdads, a tableful of fresh crabs, Wink’s boat made out of an old pickup, and the Aurochs themselves (which the filmmakers created by fitting horns to pigs that were then filmed and blown up to mythic size) – that if the only delight of this film were its visual imagery, it would still be one of the best films of the year. Add to this a beautiful score, a couple of intriguing actors, and the film’s quirky ruminations on the interconnectedness of life, and you have a film that will have viewers discussing its pleasures long after leaving the theater.
The film is directed by Benh Zeitlin from a screenplay adapted from north Florida native Lucy Alibar’s one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, which Alibar says she wrote when her own father was ill. The film was shot in a place an hour and a half south of New Orleans, and none of the cast had acted professionally before. Quvenzhane Wallis, of nearby Houma, Louisiana, was chosen from thousands to play Hushpuppy. She strides across the landscape of this film with the kind of confidence rarely seen in adult actors, and she’s fascinating to watch – funny and inspiring and fierce all at once. She allows her character to combine the hope and optimism of youth with the solid ability to stare reality in the face without flinching. In those moments when Hushpuppy is called upon to do what difficult things must be done, the very look on Wallis’s face will give you new appreciation for the sturdy will of the human species.
Dwight Henry, who plays Wink, owns and runs a bakery in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, across the street from where the filmmakers held auditions. He has said in interviews that often Zeitlin would point to a scripted line and ask him how he would say the line and the line would be changed accordingly. This fact begins to demonstrate how this film is a team effort by a group of people who came together to tell a story about a place they loved.
Yet some moviegoers may wonder, how can people love a place that’s so difficult to live in? After Hurricane Katrina, there were those who said the residents shouldn’t rebuild, that they should just give up and leave. Some moviegoers may take the same attitude about the inhabitants of the Bathtub. Similarly, some may worry that this film could stride into “noble savage” territory. Though the Bathtub community is multiracial, the film’s two main characters are Black and Southern. They are, by most American standards, very poor. There are race and class and regional issues that may cause some to fear that the film is a condescending piece that oogles the poor, Black, Southern “other” for the sake of spectacle, the kind of spectacle that makes upper-class White yuppies feel better about their own lives by comparison.
But it is nearly impossible to watch this film and see Hushpuppy and Wink’s dilemmas as theirs alone. In the U.S., this summer’s heat waves have broken numerous record high temperatures, bringing the largest drought since the 1950s and failure of our corn and soybean crops. Acreage burned in wildfires has doubled since the 1960s. Recent years have seen rising numbers of tornadoes and the necessity of familiarizing ourselves with new terms like “super-derecho.” The Aurochs are coming not only for the bayou but for each and every one of us, in different ways. No wonder we are obsessed with apocalyptic stories: end-of-the-world predictions, parasitic aliens, zombie armies. Like Hushpuppy, we tend to make narratives out of our fears. “Strong animals know when our hearts are weak,” she says. “And that makes them hungry, and they start coming.” Perhaps the stories we tell about disaster and survival are our way of telling ourselves that when the time comes we will be able to stare those strong animals in the face with courageous hearts.
Maybe it’s also our way of telling ourselves that we and our universe are worth saving. Novelist Jessica Hagedorn once wrote that American films too often equate (especially gendered) non-white ethnicity with tragedy and pity (Think The Joy Luck Club, Precious, etc.). Viewers are meant to feel sorry for the tragic Asian-American or African-American women and girls whose lives just suck so much that when they finally assert their self-worth, that’s the climax of the whole film. But Beasts of the Southern Wild is not that type of movie. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy is absolutely certain of her own self-worth, and she goes about her business without the necessity of proving it to anybody. She’s so certain of her importance to the universe that she tells us: “I’m recording my story for the scientists in the future. In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know: once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”
Hushpuppy’s simple desire to record her history is a universal human impulse — to let the world know we are here. We have such a child’s simple belief in the fact that that even matters. Yet the fact that we believe it matters is somehow so endearing, and the charm of this film is its confident assertion that a place like the Bathtub, a place like the Earth itself, matters because there are people who live their lives as if it does.
Final Verdict: Beasts of the Southern Wild is a celebration of the human spirit; a revelation for the eyes, the ears, and the mind. It’s what we hope to find in the best of films.