Is there a species on Earth that coddles their young more than humans? Birds teach their babies to fly by pushing them out of the nest. Fish take a swim fast or lose out approach, relying on the natural instincts of the young to swim from danger. Even other mammal species cut the cord, so to speak, much sooner than humans.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl being raised to “beast it” at every opportunity. Her father, Wink, leaves her alone in her own house and refuses to let her move in with him. Instead, she is taught how to survive in the Bathtub by a teacher with one major lesson: “we’re all meat.” The people in the Bathtub are survivors by necessity, living south of the new levee outside of New Orleans. One day, they will be flooded off the face of the earth. Only strong children will survive when the world comes apart and Hushpuppy is being raised to be king of the Bathtub.
Writer/director Benh Zietlin, adapting the stageplay Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, makes a bold film driven by theme and community, not character and story. The narrative is simple: the Bathtub must survive no matter what. The complexity comes in how this community is built, challenged, and drawn to the same goal.
To say Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautiful film is an understatement. Ben Richardson’s cinematography is lush and alive. The use of light, shadow, and color to create the world of Hushpuppy–one that she believes she is capable of saving or destroying with a single action–is mind blowing. Even in the darkest hours in the Bathtub, the film celebrates life. Rain, tragedy, joy, and triumph are celebrated in equal measure because “everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.”
What sets Beasts of the Southern Wild off so nicely is the use of young Hushpuppy as the central figure. This girl is just starting to come into her own as a young person. However, the line of reality and fantasy are not yet established. She’ll pick up any animal she sees to hear their heartbeat. Hushpuppy may only be six years old, but she has the full knowledge and respect of the entire Bathtub community.
She also believes in the town’s big myth. All children are taught about the aurochs. Aurochs roam the earth, looking for weak children to devour right in front of their families. No one can stop an auroch once it chooses a target. For Hushpuppy, the reason she needs to be strong is to make sure the aurochs don’t eat her and take her away from her daddy.
The aurochs appear again and again throughout the film, growing in number and size as the situation becomes more challenging for Hushpuppy. Their appearance–dark and furry tusked creatures against a bleary white background–is a startling reprieve of unabashed fanstasy from the harsh reality of life in the Bathtub.
Without the fantasy and beauty of the visuals, Beasts of the Southern Wild would be unbearably dark and disturbing. It brings back memories of natural disasters, deadly epidemics, and the fear of abandonment as a child. It is the fantasy–the hope–of the six year old Hushpuppy that allows Benh Zietlin to take Lucy Alibar’s stageplay concept as far as it needs to go to work onscreen.
You will not soon forget the people of the Bathtub and the brave little girl who thinks she controls them all. This is a cinematic experience unlike any other in years and should not be missed on the big screen.
Thoughts on Beasts of the Southern Wild? What did you think of Quvenzhane Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy? I was impressed by her presence onscreen, but wish she had a more active role in the early part of the film. Her big scenes are great, but I’m not sure how much she was really doing during the exploration scenes. What about you? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.