Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
It may not be the best film of the year (though close!), but Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those films that makes loving cinema great. An epic quest set against a backdrop of a unique and dying culture that exists outside but alongside our modern world, Beasts evokes wonder, tragedy, poverty, desperate struggle, and hope.
Beasts builds a believable world, sets up a culture of people and a believable lifestyle. The Cajun bayou living off the land is a way people do live in remote Gulf areas. Heck, some of them even have reality shows like Swamp’d! The denizens of the Bathtub live in an area full of life. Living things are all around them, the swamp is full of critters and plants, everyone has animals (dogs, chickens, pigs…) and there is always a harvest of shrimp or crab or fish freshly caught just a few seconds ago.
But the Bathtub exists with the Sword of Damocles dangling overhead. The whole area is below sea level, and on the other side of a huge levee built to keep out the water. The constant reminder is the ice caps are starting to melt, and eventually the Bathtub will be underwater. Part of why the residents are so carefree and celebratory is the spirit that the world may soon be gone. But the other reason is they have little else to do but get drunk and party. The houses are all run down and crumbling away, the clothes are all raggedy, and most people speak with slurred speech while clutching a bottle. As we see things as Hushpuppy sees them, we see her joy and her fun and the firecrackers, we hear the music and it makes us feel free and fun. But you also see the grit behind the shine. The joy in the music helps give things a lighter air, the songs lifting things up, they are as full of life as the film, as the Bathtub.
Hushpuppy isn’t stupid, and she definitely isn’t ignorant. It’s not fully explained just how much she knows and how much she doesn’t about her situation. But she lives by her father’s creed that it’s your home and you should be proud of it, fight for it. Even if it is a dump. Even if hope is lost.
Hushpuppy’s father Wink comes off as abrasive, absent, and just not very nice. He’s embittered over his wife leaving, he’s frustrated at his lifestyle being threatened by reality, and he’s harboring a secret. As we learn, he’s dying, and trying to hide it from Hushpuppy so she doesn’t see him rot away. He’s trying to teach her to be strong so she can survive, trying to teach her to be brave. He’s desperate and scared, putting on a front that becomes increasingly transparent. His refrain of “I got it under control” becomes more and more ironic. The weight of everything in his world is on his shoulders, and it is crushing him to death.
While Wink’s being absentee, there are many scenes of Hushpuppy alone. With no mom, Hushpuppy is left with just a dream of what her mom would be, an imaginary mother who dispenses motherly wisdom despite being an empty chair wrapped in one of the few pieces of mom’s clothes left. The imaginary mom who is there contrasts with the reality father who isn’t, Hushpuppy resorting to cooking cat food for herself.
Beasts is a modern day fable, so it has its own mythology aspect. The tales of old and new merge together with Hushpuppy’s reality. Hushpuppy thinks big – the past, the ice age, the Aurochs. She also looks to the future by documenting her story so children can read about it. And her own tale is a tale of a hero’s journey. Adventure happens to Hushpuppy, and due to circumstances she goes on a journey. Like all hero’s quests, she ends up changed and mature, conquering her fears. Finding what she seeked and defeating the monsters that stand in her way. Not all legends have an ending where people live happily ever after.
Hushpuppy learns of bravery and taking care of yourself to be strong. She learns them not because her frustrated father teaches her, but because she needs to learn those things in order to take care of him. He was the inspiration, but the lessons don’t click until push comes to shove. Before that, he just seems mean. Wink actually knew what he was doing, even if he didn’t know what he was doing. It’s one of those catch-22 tragedies of reality.
The cast of largely untrained local talent gives a flavor to Beasts of the Southern Wild that you can’t replicate in the studio system. The actors look real because they are real. Quvenzhané Wallis is an excellent actress, my goodness. If only every child actor was half as good as her. I see good things ahead for her, assuming there are actually roles for a young black woman that Willow Smith’s parents don’t buy. Dwight Henry great as well playing the father struggling with so much. It’s hard to believe he’s a baker in real life. The other children, they barely need them to even say anything, everything is conveyed via visuals. Which probably helped make potential not good child actors into better actors.
If anything, the only real weak points is the large amount of setup. Though there is a lot going on, and things build together nicely. I can’t really fault Beasts of the Southern Wild for much. The acting and music help give Beasts a naturalistic feel that seems to have confused people who can’t grasp that the aurochs aren’t really there. I would like to meet these people and sell them a bridge I own.
“Once there was a girl called Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” And it is a tale you should learn.
Rated 9/10 (Huzzah, owl time, tick time, chicken time, teacher, sleepy, more sleepy, very sleepy, worm time)
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