‘Beasts of The Southern Wild’ tells the story of a world wise 6 year old girl referred to affectionately by her Daddy as Hushpuppy. The unorthodox family unit live in a waterside shanty-esque community known as The Bathtub in a reimagined deep south state. They live their day to day lives off the land, farming what they can and catching fish from the surrounding waters. Their life is simple but exists under the encroaching threat of a geological catastrophe which will leave The Bathtub uninhabitable and force its residents to live within the city limits and under forced societal rules.
The film itself is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The central performances of Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as her father ‘Wink’ bely their status as inexperienced or first time actors. Their relationship feels real, the tension of their situation is palpable and desperation permeates the film as impending danger looms large. Hushpuppy and Wink are the heartbeat of ‘Beasts of The Southern Wild’. However if Hushpuppy and Wink are the heartbeat, the soul of the film is The Bathtub and its residents.
This fantastical version of a Louisiana bayou projects vibrant life like a physical oxymoron of its dank, murky, expiring waters. The residents here while not rich in financial terms have the true enrichment of solid community relations, a sense of what holds true value in our lives and a lust to experience joy as often as they can via music, old time reminiscence and of course multiple bottles of ice cold beer and home crafted moonshine. When they band together they’re at their happiest and it’s Hushpuppy’s observations of this world that guide us through the film.
A lot of us these days miss out on the simple joys in life. People are more concerned with aspiring to societal normality and almost welcome the shackles that the hefty mortgage on a soulless concrete block in a place they’re told they should desire to live in provides. The residents of ‘The Bathtub’ see true beauty in their existence despite their daily hardships and are happy to work to maintain their lifestyle while living off the land.
The ‘beasts’ of the title are in the most literal sense ‘Aurochs’, a prehistoric breed of cattle that resemble boars on steriods. Miss Bathsheba teaches the children of The Bathtub that when the polar icecaps melt these beasts will be released. When this prophecy comes to pass and The Bathtub is made uninhabitable to nature by the influx of salt water the residents are forced to take drastic action to bring balance back to their lives but are they ready for the consequences or preeminant arrival of the Aurochs?
My praise of ‘Beasts of The Southern Wild’ couldn’t be any higher. The film has an emotional rawness balanced with tenderness and affection without ever becoming saccharine or sentimental. Wink throughout the film is sometime excessively harsh on his daughter. Hushpuppy is having to deal with her environment, is constantly contemplating the loss or whereabouts of her mother all while coming to the realisation that all of us go through that eventually the person who protects her and guides her will not be around to do so anymore. The harshness of Wink’s teachings is only given as parity to prepare Hushpuppy for the environment in which she’ll have to survive. The toughness comes out of true love and it’s easy to see that Wink is hurt by the chastisement and only wants his daughter to be self-sufficient when he is gone. Dwight Henry plays this awkward duality perfectly. At times he does not seem to be a nice guy, but you never end up disliking him because you can see the layers of his true motivation.
The deterioration of Wink’s health coincides with The Bathtub’s decline, this appears to be one of the central metaphors of the film as the need for Hushpuppy to be her own woman at least 15 years too early becomes imperative. We see on screen Hushpuppy grow with every passing scene and it’s a testament to how believable and captivating young Quvenzhané Wallis is that we as an audience more than happy to take all the punches just to see how it’s all going to turn out for our protaganist and The Bathtub as a whole. Balance is a key theme in the film and as Hushpuppy says ‘The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.’
I cannot recommend ‘Beasts of The Southern Wild’ highly enough. Some people may not like the ambiguity of Benh Zeitlin’s directions but if you’re patient and are willing to buy in and examine the numerous metaphorical strands running through the film then you’re going to have an experience that will not only teach you something about life but will also teach you something about yourself should you be brave enough to partake in the introspection.
‘Beasts of The Southern Wild’ is one of those rare films that will put a smile on your face through the simplicity and power of human emotion. You’ll laugh, you’ll smile warmly, your heart will ache but beat stronger afterwards. It’s a film that will make you appreciate the good things and people you have around you in your life, it will make you squeeze the hands of your loved ones a little harder and hopefully it’ll make you see the true joy a little bit of simplicity and freedom can provide if only you are brave enough to step forward and give it a try.
“I see that I’m a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they’re gonna find it all. They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she live with her Daddy in The Bathtub.”