I think to understand anything I want to say about this movie, you have to see the trailer first.
Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the bathtub.
Like the reviewer in The New York Times, this movie reminded me very much of The Tree of Life, one of my favorite movies of last year. It has a fluid narrative structure, with not much of an actual story to tell. It is composed of moments and images and sounds and scenes and a performance by an astonishing youngsters. But where The Tree of Life was polished and went cosmic, Beasts of the Southern Wild is rough and looks to celebrate life on earth very specifically.
The story takes place in an area near New Orleans called the Bathtub. With the world on the verge of natural catastrophe, The Bathtub already looks post-apocalyptic. People live in ramshackle huts and homes, make boats out of truck beds, and seem to be a lot happier than most of us. As our narrator, Hushpuppy (played by the unbelieveable Quvenzhané Wallis) tells us, the Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world. Indeed the opening is a string of scenes of The Bathtub coming together to celebrate … probably life itself.
Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink. Wink told his daughter that her mother swam away one day, and Hushpuppy has not given up hope that her mother is out there in the world and can hear her. Wink has made it his duty to teach his daughter, whom he frequently calls “man” or “dude”, how to survive. He teacher her how to catch a catfish with her bare hands. He has shown her how to cook her own meals, with a blowtorch. To the extent he is able, Wink tells his daughter of the world as it is, without softening the edges or hiding the dangers.
He is preparing her for the time she must be strong enough to rule on her own. He tells her that one day she’ll be King of the Bathtub. And after seeing the incredible force of nature that is Hushpuppy, you don’t doubt that for a moment.
A great storm comes and the residents of the Bathtub must either flee or wait out the storm, praying that they don’t get swept away by the water and drown. Some might say what happens after is a comment on American self-reliance and is anti-government interference. I say that is reading too much into something that I don’t think takes any stands in a political discourse. Instead, it’s a comment on this particular group of people – the remnants of this community band together to maintain their way of life in the face of so much destruction.
We see the world through Hushpuppy’s eyes and understand what happens from her point of view. She is so at one with the natural world around her, she believes the animals send her secret messages, encoded in the very beats of their hearts. Hushpuppy has figured out how she fits into the world because she sees the world for how it is, everything dependent on everything else, “The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If you fix the broken piece, everything can go back.” And when something dear to her breaks, she is determined to fix it. But as we know, part of growing up is learning you can’t always fix everything and somethings break beyond repair. Watching Hushpuppy learn this lesson is heartbreaking.
The movie is touched with magical realism. Hushpuppy’s teacher (during a surprisingly foul lecture) tells the class of an extinct beast called an aurochs, that would eat them up if they hadn’t been frozen in ice thousands of years ago. It spoils nothing to say that as things break and ice melts, the aurochs make their way to the Bathtub, clearing a path of destruction of their own. When child and beast meet, it is clearly an act of fate bringing together two necessary pieces of the world, once separated by millennia, now face to face and eye to eye. It is a quiet moment that will make you hold your breath.
What is amazing about Beasts of the Southern Wild is that non of the actors are actors. Wink, Dwight Henry, is a baker. Many of the residents of the Bathtub are locals first time director Benh Zeitlin got together. This clearly contributes to the roughness of the film that I mentioned earlier. These performances aren’t studies, they are showing us their lives.
It would be a sin for me not to mention the soundtrack of the film. As you can tell from the trailer it is as essential to the story as the location is. It is at once simple and complex and wholly evocative. I cannot stop listening to it.
This is not a perfect film. It meanders beyond what it should. The camera work is at times a bit shaky. But you overlook its flaws and just immerse yourself in Hushpuppy’s innocence and passion and let it all flow over you.
As Hushpuppy says, she is recording her story for the scientists and for the people in the future so that they will know, once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the bathtub. And you will never forget it.