“Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run” young little Hushpuppy tells us. It is this defiance against disaster, in its many forms, that is the core of the joyous’Beasts of the Southern Wilds’. It is director Behn Zeitlin’s first feature film, and with it he has created a mesmerizing and beautifully poetic surrealist fable of love, strength, childhood and innocence; a fable whose fantastical atmosphere, universal themes and a stunning performance by then six year old Quvenzhane Wallis make it one of the year’s best films.
The story follows a young girl named Hushpuppy (Wallis), who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a small commune called the Bathtub located in a New Orleans bayou on the Mississippi delta. The Bathtub is inhabited by a group of individuals cut off from the world, south of the levees, dependent on nature and each other. Hushpuppy calls it “the prettiest place on Earth”, though in reality they live in squalor. This simple living doesn’t phase the residents of the Bathtub who are survivors, living amongst the beauty and harshness of nature for generations. They celebrate their existence with wild parties, fireworks and drinks; not caring about the world north of the levee’s, or the potential dangers of nature’s fury. They consider themselves adaptable, able to find a way to go on no matter what the world throws at them. This is something Hushpuppy is just learning as the films begins. She is still naive and curious about everything, and spends much of her time listening to the heartbeats of baby chicks, while imagining they speak to her in code.
Like the other children of the Bathtub, Hushpuppy learns about the world from her father and a makeshift schoolhouse run by an eccentric ‘medicine woman’. Here she it taught that the universe is held together by very intricate and delicate pieces, and one disruption could tear it all apart, cause the ice caps to melt, the waters to rise and an ancient boar- like beast known as the Auroch’s to be reborn. It is meant to be more metaphorical than anything and scare the children right, but for Hushpuppy it causes her imagination to run wild. She is still at an age where the world around her, though often confusing, is a place of wonder still open for exploration.
Her father Wink has outgrown such thinking and the Bathtub has made him a rough and often disgruntled man, who isn’t against striking his daughter. But his tough ways stem from his desire to make sure Hushpuppy is hardened and able to survive when he is gone. It hasn’t been easy for him raising her alone ever since her mother “swam away”, as we are told, though it is unknown if she is dead or just gone. However, Hushpuppy believes her mother is somewhere across the water, near a light that flickers across the bay, reminiscent of the green light in ‘The Great Gatsby’.
One day Wink goes missing, leaving Hushpuppy to care for herself. When he returns he is dressed in a hospital gown and we slowly come to understand that he is sick but doesn’t want to tell her. Angry at him for disappearing Hushpuppy hits him in the chest causing him to fall over in a great deal of pain; an effect of his secret illness, but she thinks it is all her doing. Suddenly thunder erupts, a storm is coming. Soon after a hurriance bares down on the Bathtub, flooding the place they call home, leaving its resident’s displaced, hungry and struggling in way that only their ancestors would have ever experienced. Being the naive little girl she is Hushpuppy believes that she has disrupted the natural order of things, broken one of the pieces holding the universe together and everything is now falling apart. She envisions the ice caps cracking, and the Auroch’s springing back to life, coming to get her. She holds a lot of this emotional weight on her shoulders but it doesn’t stop her. No, instead as she puts it “the entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right…if you can fix the broken piece, everything can go right back.” So she sets out to reverse whatever mistake she has made, help her father and in doing so possibly find her mother.
What made me fall in love with ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is how in the first few minutes, before the title screen, Zeitlin creates the world of the Bathtub with such great detail. It is liking jumping head first into this whole new world we have never seen, a slice of Americana with an aura of mysticism; and from their he builds upon the characters, their relationships and the emotions that flow through every scene. Zeitlin handles everything with such great delicacy, like he truly believes the Bathtub and its residents are intricate pieces of a larger cosmos and by showing that they are just small pieces of a much bigger puzzle the emotions they express, the love and the struggles they share, are all the more profound. It helps to reaffirm that even in the great expanse of space and time it is love, imagination and determination through whatever adversary that ends up meaning the most.
This is something Hushpuppy ends up learning first hand. “Somtimes you can break things so bad, they can’t be put back together” she says, which is all too true. People get sick, people leave us, people die; storms come, water rises, towns are destroyed, homes are lost forever and nothing can be done to stop it. But this isn’t a film about lost, no it is one of hope. Even after all the hardship the people of the Bathtub and young little Hushpuppy go through, it is love and family that ultimately persevere. In this sense Hushpuppy realizes that the pieces that hold the universe together aren’t all physical, that there is more to the world than just what we see or could ever imagine; and even in death the ones we love stay with us. In this way it was very reminiscent of ‘The Tree of Life’ from last year. Which isn’t the only thing it has in common with Malick’s films. Both also share similar sense of wonder in its observations of man and nature, intoxicating visuals, and even voice over narrations to let us listen to the most inner thoughts of the main characters.
With that said, the most fantastic aspect of the film is definitely the performance by the young Quvenzhane Wallis, who is deserving of an Oscar nomination. This is her first role, and she really makes the character her own. Not only is she able to carry the burden of the heavy emotions that run through the story, but on the physical side she is in every way as rough and capable as Hushpuppy, who with her dazzling smile, courage and fierceness would give Katniss a run for her money.
Dwight Henry, a New Orleans resident, baker, father and first time actor, also really adds a lot to the character of Wink that another actor couldn’t. He lived in New Orleans through Katrina. He knows first hand the struggles and life style of residents of Louisiana and he brings that experience to the character. As with Wallis, he also handles the emotions of the story so well, and together the two have a chemistry that makes watching their struggles all the more heartbreaking.
The last thing I need to mention is the score, which is in every way a part of the soul of the film. It is moving and whimsical, propelling the tone and emotions of the story with every beat. It adds to what is already a very sensory film whose emotions, through visuals, performances and sound just flow off the screen. So much so that by its end you’re standing it puddles wondering if the ice caps are really melting; until you realize the water is just your own tears. Honestly, when the credits began to roll no one in the theater got up. It was a rather remarkable sight to behold, and the first time I have experience such a thing. It was like everyone was letting it all sink in, wiping the tears from their faces, and not wanting to leave the Bathtub.
It is this ability to so fully engross the viewer that makes ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ perhaps the best film I’ve seen so far this year. From its beautiful beginning, where it sets up the world of the film with delicacy and great detail, to the profound, often heart-wrenching, but ultimately joyous ending, you won’t want to walk away from the story and characters of this modern fable. In this way it is an absolutely magical, ambitious and unique movie going experience. One that can not be missed.