Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), dir. Benh Zeitlin, Academy Award nominee for Best Picture
Zeitlin’s dreamy vision of Katrina-esque disaster almost ceases to be a film. It is a fairytale of magical realism told from the perspective of a 5-year-old masterfully played by Quvenzhane Wallis. The backdrop of a post-Katrina small-town Louisiana fight for survival is a vivid external representation of this little girl getting old enough to wonder about her parents – her father who is at best distant and at worst negligent and her absent mother – as well as about her place in the world. Her name is Hushpuppy and she lives in the Bathtub. The setting is a fictional bayou territory partly modeled after the real Isle de Jean Charles in southern Louisiana. The name of the place is highly appropriate and likewise imaginative one, namely because of the semi-permanent ever-existing flood risk. In the midst of yet another approaching storm we are pulled into almost surreal life of the Bathtub – a place existing of the grid, which is cut from the rest of the world by a levee – waiting together with its residents for Katrina to hit. Apart from the ongoing wheatear risk Hushpuppy is facing yet another one – the risk of being left alone. Her father Wink (Dwight Henry) is suffering of some kind of blood disorder that considering the language of this film can be read as the case of a broken heart resulted in Hushpuppy’s mother abandoning them.
When storm hits you realize how deeply Wink is actually caring for his daughter and that his “negligence” comes from the fact that he is sick and is spending his time in the hospital trying to get better, for her. His only purpose in the remaining life is therefor to teach his daughter how to survive and to make her brave and ready for the things to come. “They’re afraid of the water like a buncha babies!” he says, “This ain’t no time to sit around cryin’ like a buncha pussies!” Repeatedly, he encourages his daughter to show off by either shooting at the storm showing her how there is no reason to be afraid to sleep at night or flexing her sparrow-sized upper-arm muscles, like a heartbreakingly tiny bodybuilder. “Show me them guns!” he yells. “Who’s the man?” he yells. “I am the man!” Hushpuppy yells back.
In the aftermath of the storm Wink puts his baby into a boat determined to teach her how to catch fish once she remains the only “man” in the Bathtub. One of the critics wrote how it really makes no sense that Wink is being able to catch fish with his bare hands and “without even getting out of the boat“. I find this to be a ridiculous statement to say the least. Her father can do just about anything precisely because this is her perspective of the world and in her world her father is an all mighty powerful one. In an almost Apocalypse Now (1979) upriver journey Wink and Hushpuppy are sent on a journey through a “war zone” looking for the people that storm has spit out, dead or alive, which bares strong resemblance with Coppola’s Vietnam adventure. Unfortunately, most of them are “under, trying to breath through water” and in the course of next two weeks, due to the rising amount of salt in the water, the Bathtub slowly begins to die…
Although Wink and Hushpuppy ‘officially’ don’t need help they eventually find themselves in a shelter, against their own will. Wink goes to the surgery however, we soon realize he is about to die and there’s no changing that. Wink’s last wish is to be brought back home so he would die in his land because ‘when the animal gets sick in the shelter they plug it into the wall’ and that is the last thing he wants. Her fears of facing the “loss of the thing that made her” finally manifests in the fierce Aurochs, animals ten times her size, she previously learned about in school. This is one of the most beautiful scenes of the entire film – seeing Hushpuppy facing and conquering her ultimate fear that along the way became a friend of some sort in her lonely life of discovering the world. On another level it also looked like two babies just facing each other, looking and acknowledging one another. Wink’s efforts have finally paid of – Hushpuppy is strong now and ready to let go. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a character study first and foremost. A study of a child in need who doesn’t understand what’s going wrong around her, so she puts on a brave face. And boy, is she brave.
The central themes of the film – our connection with the earth, the sense of homeness, nostalgia for the way of life where we knew our place in the world, our very being-in-the-world, resilience, the values of giving, of forgiving – are exemplified by Hushpuppy’s wisdom and her inner dynamics. Her sense of unity with her surroundings beautifully manifests in her ability to feel the special bond with all the living things just by listening their heartbeats like a special code that enables this communication. And although she doesn’t understand what they are saying she understands that everything is connected and dependent on each other. This brings to mind Terence Malick whose influence is felt in both subjective, perspectival cinematography of those spaces of silence Zeitling is bringing up and in his poetic storytelling. Its time frame is not as easily determined. It is a film set at the time of the Katrina catastrophe. Yes, but it is also set some hundred years in the future or in the modern-ess past re-enacting the biblical flood. It is an apocalyptic yet not quite dystopian. Bathtub is a community of black and white living together, as equals, equally poor. And although they do have a choice their choice is quite easy. Come what may, they are here to stay. Profoundly influenced by Malick’s imagery, to some extent by Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2009) with certain elements of Coppola’s Apocalypse, Zeitlin is creating a new type of war zone, rendering it surreal. This is the wonderful piece of filmmaking which I would gladly recommend to everyone without a second thought.However, to my disbelief there are people out there calling this film racist, labeling Zeitlin’s vision of the bayou as voyeuristic and exploitative. But to do these things one has to tie this magical piece too close to the real world. It is like reading Kafka and saying “no, this just can’t happen in the real world”, which means you are missing the point. Zeitlin is showing us real America struck by the climate change, poverty and class segregation but the prism that we look through is, and this is the most important thing to remember, built by a 5-year-old. Aurochs are not real because they are extinct. It is simple as that. This film is using them as a mere representation of Hushpuppy’s fears and unhappiness with her world being torn down and broken into millions of pieces with no possibility of putting it back together. And the worst thing is, they come when they know that you heart is weak. But Hushpuppy’s got it under control for she is the bravest character of this fairytale and she knows it very well – there is no crying allowed. The smallest heart with the strongest beat has only one thing to tell us: “I’m recording it for the scientists in the future. In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” And yes, we sure will because Beasts of the Southern Wild is surely one of the best films of 2012.
Text written by: Monika Ponjavic