A Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, (2012)
By REBECCA, July 23, 2012
I’ve been eagerly awaiting Beasts of the Southern Wild for months, now, and I am thrilled to report that it did not disappoint.
The film is based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play “Juicy and Delicious.” Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 5 when she auditioned, and beat out thousands of other Louisiana locals) lives with her father, Wink, on a Louisiana island called The Bathtub, on the wrong side of the levy. Hushpuppy’s mother left years before, and her father (played by Dwight Henry, another first-time actor who happened to own the bakery next to the casting offices where director Behn Zeitlin often bought bread) is ill and drinks all the time. When violent storms threaten to flood The Bathtub, many locals pack up and head out, leaving a small cadre behind, who have to survive in the wake of the flood, which kills animals and plants, and floods their homes.
Hushpuppy narrates the film and both the script and Wallis’ performance are haunting in their emotion and simplicity, as is Dan Romer’s score, which reviewers have compared to a kind of stripped-down Arcade Fire. Guided by her voiceover, we experience the events of the film through Hushpuppy’s eyes: after her teacher tells the children about the aurochs, great beasts trapped under the ice, Hushpuppy incorporates the aurochs into the landscape of The Bathtub, finally identifying as a beast herself in sympathy with them; when Hushpuppy hits her father, we see him fall down, as if the fury and hatred she feels toward him actually have the power to slay him. Beasts is magical realism, then, inasmuch as Hushpuppy’s reality is our access point to this world.
More interesting, though, are particularities of the film that aren’t magical but are composed from a hodgepodge that seems almost post-apocalyptic: Hushpuppy and Wink putter through the floodwaters in a boat made out of the bed of a blue pickup truck atop floaters, grabbing fish straight from the water for food; they live in ramshackle huts that appear to be constructed of layer upon layer of detritus gathered from their surroundings; in the evenings, they drink and socialize with the other denizens of The Bathtub, eating crabs, shrimp, and crawfish by the bucketful and knocking back liquor as the waters lap their feet.
Despite its overwhelming critical success (it won this year’s Grand Jury Prize in drama at Sundance) Beasts of the Southern Wild has been criticized for what some see as a kind of cultural tourism in which the lives of poor Southerners are exoticized and made magic, rendering them curiosities instead of complex characters. While I recognize the impulse behind this critique, I found the film’s genre—a kind of magical realism meets regional adventure piece—to argue against it. Rather than using Hushpuppy, Wink, and the other inhabitants of The Bathtub to generalize about a group of rural Southerners, Beasts uses the intricacies of the region itself to portray one particular coming of age story. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy works to make her personal mark and archive her existence, drawing her story on the wall of her cardboard box hiding place and speaking it to us in the voiceover: “In a million years,” she tells us, “when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”
Similarly, Beasts has also been held up as an example of a director aestheticizing poverty, as the film finds exquisite beauty in scenes dominated by dirty, broken places, and muddy, hungry people. This critique is by no means a new one, and rests, it seems, on the troubling assumption that just because a place is poor it is necessarily immune to beauty. Further, this critique seems to reveal an anxiety on the part of viewers that they might find the suffering of others beautiful, be it Wink’s ever-further protruding cheekbones that catch the dim light like a wood carving in Beasts, or those of the concentration camp prisoners in Schindler’s List. Rather, the cameras of Beasts’ director and cinematographer seem to unfailingly find precisely the beauty of The Bathtub and its inhabitants that makes Wink and the others who stay cling so ardently to their home, despite the attempts of all forces to drive them from it. It is beauty, yes, but a fierce and treacherous beauty that betrays all attempts to control it—a sublime beauty, like the cleaving of the immense glaciers that Hushpuppy imagines frees the aurochs from their icy prisons.
Not tourism, then, nor aestheticization, but a kind of joyful tramp—as only children can—through the mud connecting Hushpuppy’s home, her school, a much-maligned rescue center, and a floating paradise of catfish and women that brings Hushpuppy a kind of peace, finally allowing her to return to The Bathtub on her own terms rather than her father’s, a pack of fierce and loving girlfriends around her.
At its most explicit, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a critique of the institutionalized blindness to the populations of certain regions and the hypocrisy of rescue-efforts that value the lives they would choose for those people over the lives those people choose for themselves. More subtly, though, it’s a story of how we make our own homes and our own histories despite—or perhaps because of—the attempts to obliterate them. Does it have moments of sentimentality? Yes. Echoes of other films with innocent or young protagonists? Sure. But Beasts is very much its own movie. I highly recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild, whether you’re in it for its politics, its story, its beauty, or its characters.