This lovely film directed by Behn Zeitlin and co-written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on her play, Juicy and Delicious, received superb reviews when it opened earlier this summer, a happy response to a feature that feels more like a documentary. Zeitlin and his independent film production company Court 13, devote themselves to making good movies by and about good people, regardless of resources; their web site says the company is “a collection of madcap artists and animators of junk that seek to tell huge stories out of small parts. Tales spring from groups of real people on the margins, and adaptation to screen demands that we live the extremes of the story, not just tell about them.” The company, based in New Orleans, used a mostly non-professional cast to tell a magical story of survival in a fictional Louisiana delta community called The Bathtub, set near Terrebonne Parish.
Cut off from the mainland and threatened by a recently built levee that keeps water from draining out of their neighborhood after devastating storms move on, the local people live a subsistence existence according to their own rules. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl, lives by her wits with her unpredictable father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Wink is ill; he suddenly disappears early in the film, and comes back a few days later in a foul mood, wearing a hospital gown and identification bracelet, wandering around the field outside the shack he and Hushpuppy share in the depths of the bayou.
Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t propelled by plot as much as by how Zeitlin tells the story of a hardscrabble group of people rarely represented on film. Hushpuppy narrates the film with simple but poignant philosophical observations that somehow never seem clichéd but only true. People who might be falling-down useless drunks in another film here become enchanting, charming, self-sufficient denizens of an underworld where people with no money nonetheless seem rich with friendship, camaraderie, and the wealth of the natural world in which they live in utter balance. Theirs is a tale of survival.
Hushpuppy and Wink live in shelter pieced together from old house trailers, corrugated tin, cardboard, and garbage in mixtures that are literally flammable. Cooking on a rusty propane stove whose burner she lights with a long-nosed lighter, wearing a helmet she stores in the broken refrigerator’s freezer, Hushpuppy starts a fire to get her distracted father’s attention and to retaliate for his unwarranted anger at her. She winds up burning down her part of their home and her collected mementos, only rescuing the basketball jersey she uses to represent her missing mother.
But without much sense of loss, she moves into her father’s adjacent space, where they use his ramshackle, barely floating boat—the bed of an old truck lashed onto tin barrels—to keep themselves safe in case the storm water rises to their flimsy roof.
And because this is Louisiana and they live in the Bathtub, the water rises indeed. On this year’s seventh anniversary of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and with the more recent appearance of the less threatening but still potent Hurricane Isaac, Beasts of the Southern Wild demonstrates its eerie relevance. As the Bathtub’s residents wait for the storm to arrive, they note who plans to leave and who’s “man” enough to stay. Characters hand out the admiring designation “You the man” without regard to sex or even age. Wink shouts at Hushpuppy, motivating her to clench her little biceps and to yell, “I’m the man!” as he persuades her of her own power. Being “the man” is a state of mind that convinces Wink, Hushpuppy, and their friends that they’re strong enough to face down not just the elements, but anything that would intrude on their proud way of life.
The community survives the first of the film’s storms, even though the water rises to the windows of their shelters and requires them to float through the streets. They celebrate with liquor and buckets of crawfish that appear from nowhere, presumably pulled from the high water coursing around them. Their raucous dinner seems like a scheduled revelry, rather than a pick-up meal that honors their survival. These occasions seem to happen regularly in lives tied so intimately to the seasons’ weather.
Before the next storm, government officials visit the Bathtub to scare its people out, insisting they observe the mandatory evacuation. They forcibly remove Wink and Hushpuppy and their friends from their desperate homes and relocate them to government shelters that feel like prisons to the adults and like what she calls a “fishbowl without water” to Hushpuppy. The girl enters the large, airy shelter in awe of its proportions, wondering at all the people waiting listlessly for the storm to arrive. The doctors who examine Wink realize how sick he is and insist he be treated. Her father tries to send Hushpuppy away, but the tenacious little girl refuses to leave him, even as Wink spits up blood at her feet and they both realize that he’s dying.
Hushpuppy’s mother either died herself or left the girl and Wink on their own. Although Wink loves to tell Hushpuppy stories of the night she was conceived, her mother exists only in Hushpuppy’s imagination. The girl incarnates her by draping a sports jersey across the back of a chair, and pretending that she hears her mother’s voice speaking to her fondly. Later, she believes that a beacon she sees from a lighthouse in the distance across the water is a signal from her lost mother. In one of the film’s many wordlessly moving scenes, Hushpuppy and three of her young friends run into the surf together, each with a little hand clutching a single flotation ring, paddling with determination toward the light. They’re picked up (rescued would be the wrong word, as they have a goal and a destination) by a fisherman on a rickety, two-story boat called Grumpy.
The crusty white boat captain communes with Hushpuppy as though she were a much older woman. The girl is in fact an old soul; she sees her world with sober resignation cut with remarkable hope, understanding that each piece of something goes with a piece of something else, that her world is a puzzle that follows a grand design. She says, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the whole universe will get busted.” Hushpuppy listens to what she calls the different codes living things make, holding birds’ breasts up to her ear to tease out their messages. She finds comfort in knowing something larger than herself inspires her life, though she and the others never call this “god.”
The boat’s captain takes Hushpuppy and her friends to a floating juke-joint-like brothel, where the resident slip-clad prostitutes (women of all ages and races) fuss over them like hens over chicks. Although Hushpuppy is the seeker, all four girls find themselves wrapped in warm, motherly embraces, dancing to music with their faces buried in ample bosoms and tender arms. Hushpuppy meets the establishment’s waitress, who takes her to the kitchen and tells Hushpuppy she’ll show her a magic trick. The kind waitress fries alligator meat for the little girl while she imparts the region’s conventional wisdom: We’re all alone, there is no happy-ever-after, and you have to rely on your wits and good sense to get through.
Despite what seems like social deprivation, the Bathtub’s culture is rich with music and gaiety. Danger never comes from the community. Only the weather and the government merit fear. The boat captain who retrieves Hushpuppy and her friends from the water is a stranger, but he moves them along in their journey without threat or question. The waitress she meets can’t comfort Hushpuppy for the long haul, but for the few moments they know one another, Hushpuppy nestles in her arms on the dance floor. In their passing acquaintance, these people offer their own measure of sustenance with a clear-eyed commitment to one another’s survival.
Hushpuppy is a quick learner with a steely resolve. She leaves the comfort of the brothel, knowing she has to return to her dying father. In Wink’s last moments, she feeds him the leftovers of her fried alligator meal from a Styrofoam take-out box, putting each morsel in his mouth like a communion wafer. Zeitlin’s direction is so tactile, and the acting so real and present, you can almost taste each of those bites with Wink. When her father dies, Hushpuppy honors his wish for his body to be burned on his boat in the bayou. She pushes his shrouded corpse onto the water in the makeshift boat, lighting the funeral pyre with a torch. Hushpuppy and Wink’s friends watch as the burning boat floats away. His daughter is ready to inhabit the instructions for living that represent Wink’s legacy: “My only purpose in life,” he once said, “is to teach her how to make it.”
Hushpuppy’s teacher, Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), tells her and the other Bathtub children who comprise her ad hoc classroom the story of the aurochs, ancient animals trapped in ice that will be released from their deep freeze when the glaciers melt and begin to end human habitation on earth. The very serious Hushpuppy takes these stories to heart, incorporating them into her already vivid imagination. The bayou’s thundering storms come to represent to her ears the approach of the mythical animals that signify both the terror of the apocalypse and hope for a future. Images of ice melting around the boar-like auroch’s bodies, portending their release back into the wild, pepper the film.
Just before Wink dies, Hushpuppy hears four aurochs stampede across the bayou. The moment they reach her, Hushpuppy stops in her tracks and turns to confront them. “Strong animals know when your hearts are weak,” she says in the voiceover. The alpha animal leans his snout in close to Hushpuppy’s face, as she stands immobile and impassive in the face of what should be a mortal threat. The animal sniffs, inquiring more gently than might be imaginable, before he and his fellow beasts turn and leave Hushpuppy to her loss. The beautiful scene—managed by a combination of puppetry, animation, and human actors—foretells Hushpuppy’s ability to stand her ground, to face down her terrors, and to control her own future.
The film’s final image echoes scenes from The King of Hearts’ merry band of escaped asylum patients, or from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with its macabre dance of death. Hushpuppy and her make-shift remaining, multi-racial family walks through Bathtub, down a tunnel of land on which water encroaches from both sides. As the surf laps at their feet, the ragtag assortment of adults and children walk toward some unknown destiny, with Hushpuppy, “the man,” leading them along. Though it’s not clear where they’re going, we can be sure that they’ll stay together and that somehow, they’ll prevail.
What’s most moving about this film is that it tells its story through the eyes of a very young girl who’s a very old soul. Although Hushpuppy mostly speaks in voiceover, Wallis’s eyes and her face are expressive and nuanced. Her clarity of purpose and her dignity are captivating and compelling, as she seems to be older than most of the adults with whom she interacts. I’ve never seen a movie that captures a child’s dawning realization of what it means to carry the world on your shoulders in quite this way. Hushpuppy works to survive every day, trundling toward a future that’s far from certain. But her final bit of narration insists that people will know Hushpuppy was here, that she existed. She says, “In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” This, in itself, is a triumph, when the odds—because of her race, her gender, her poverty—are weighted so heavily against her.
Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a documentary crossed with magical realism. Its richly calibrated, lightly emotional performances give it the narrative force and the power of character that real-life chronicles sometimes treat more obliquely. That the lead actors are non-professionals is truly amazing; the wonderful Wallis was cast, at five-years-old, from a pool of 4,000 or so young girls, and Dwight Henry ran a bakery that was located across the street from Court 13’s production offices. The empathetic Montano, playing the teacher, appeared in Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Rise. That these three and the other assembled children and adults prove so powerfully compelling is really a testament to Zeitlin’s vision and compassion as a filmmaker and to Alibar’s story.
See Beasts of the Southern Wild for its revelations about how people can live so differently under the name of citizenship; see it to be angered at the paternalism of a government that harms by trying to protect. But also see it to be moved by a girl who tells her story with powerful simplicity and utter insight, in ways that make Hushpuppy an agent of belief in magical transformation.
The Feminist Spectator, with props to Feminist Spectator 2 for her smart observations