A Southern Fairytale in an Uncharted Reality
“The bathtub” is the fictional, even fantastical location in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in which all of creation is neglected. South of the Louisiana levees, it has no protection from wind or rain; it is nature untouched and uncontrolled, sporadically tame, harmoniously in flux. Yet life, in this post-Katrina vision, is still out of balance, organically, emotionally, existentially.
Among the fraternal community in the swampy confines is Hushpuppy, a five-year-old girl played with great spirit by Quvenzhané Wallis. She is raised by her ailing, hard-knocks father, Wink (Dwight Henry), alone, after separating with his wife, someone alluded to in oral histories and in the material possessions littered over one of the two raised shacks in which they live. Their compound hosts farm animals and unsanitary clutter, complementing the overgrown wildlife that’s enveloped their property. This is considered normal for Hushpuppy, whose isolation from modern reality breeds little domestic necessities.
The film was directed by Benh Zeitlin, adapting the Lucy Alibar one-act play “Juicy and Delicious.” His filmmaking offers a visceral physicality, often told from the perspective of Hushpuppy, magnifying wrinkled hands and the metronomic heartbeats of living creatures, sights and sounds intimately palpable for a young girl. This is tempered however by Wink’s aggressive, almost bipolar parenting as he struggles with heart problems that he attempts to mask through frighteningly abusive behavior.
Then the storm hits and while most of The Bathtub evacuates, Wink, Hushpuppy, and several other neighbors hold their ground. This seems unwise and foolish, and yet these uncounted residents know it may be the last time they lay claim to their homes, community, and way of life. Wink takes Hushpuppy aboard a makeshift raft, made evidently from the butt of a pickup truck. They float through a submerged town, a la Huckleberry and Jim, with Wink imparting paternal wisdom and practical skill as he feels his impending decline in health. There is unbridled frustration imparted towards Hushpuppy, who has unprecedented patience for an often drunk father and violent motivator.
Quvenzhané Wallis gives quite a performance with her frizzled fro and kindred spirit, unfiltered in community gatherings. Her charm comes through her deep aspirations to be remembered by scientists of the future as she scribbles down what look like cave drawings on cardboard and floors. She knows she must grow up fast, knows her father is weak, and feels the lack of a maternal presence, to which she calls forth at a distant lighthouse, a symbolic beacon of hope.
Her child perspective is illuminated in the film’s more fantastical elements which most prominently feature an allegorical tale of Aurochs, giant, prehistoric, boar-like creatures that come to life after the storm passes. Hushpuppy narrates in her sometimes indiscernible youngster dialect, tying in these mythological beasts that run parallel with her personal challenges.
In an evacuation center, the sanitized, bright white ceilings and walls provide a discomforting vision for Hushpuppy, but also the viewer. The flooded quarters, muddy dwellings, weathered roofs are realities rooted in family bonds. They are not seen merely as broken down dwellings, nor inhospitable vacancies. The neighborhood is a cultural hotbed, where memories always stay afloat and traditions are buoyed by generational teaching, to Hushpuppy and three other young girls who find refuge with other determined to stay members.
But Hushpuppy is wise beyond her years. She calmly professes cosmic canon, similar to Jack in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, questioning and realizing her place in the world. “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted,” says Hushpuppy. Unity begins at its most basic component, its natural, biological soul. Yet Hushpuppy’s current imbalance comes first in her parental foundation and lastly in her conviction.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is more digestible though. It’s less ambitious in its universal exploration like Malick’s Tree but grittier than a film like Melancholia, whose strength in human emotion came in its aesthetic beauty. Zeitlin focuses on nature’s unity, a community’s collective spirit, and a young girl’s voyage through life and death.
Hushpuppy , with her increasingly confident heart, cannot afford a contemplative journey or moody meltdown. She has the strength her father needs and the will to carry it forward. In this summer of superheroes, Hushpuppy has the force to spin a revered Dark Knight quotable into a Bayou blessing. She’s the “hero” The Bathtub deserves and the one it needs right now.