In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.
Ooooh, an arthouse movie that emphatically won over critics – what to make of it? Well, in some ways, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a sweetly endearing, yet powerfully uplifting and life-affirming tale about community, survival, and the world from a six-year-old girl’s viewpoint.
It shares certain similarities with Where the Wild Things Are and Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s also been likened to Terence Malick’s work which – if you’re drawing Malick comparisons – means it will be utterly divisive. Love it or loathe it, this is a tender, heartfelt story that touches on society and environment, life and death, imagination and fantasy, community ties and family roots. There’s the technical cinematic answer for you.
Wink and Hushpuppy – Beast it!
It’s set in the deep south of Louisiana in a ramshackle bayou community called the Bathtub, inspired by the real life Isle de Jean Charles: A place under constant flood-threat, protected by a levee wall from the elements, but largely outside the protection of American authorities.
There Hushpuppy (played by impossibly cute, first-time actress Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her quick-tempered father Wink (Dwight Henry, another first-timer). The relationship between the two is heart and soul of the movie.
Largely a tale of survival as Wink – aware of his rapidly failing health – teaches Hushpuppy how to fend for herself once he’s gone. Stressing the importance of never leaving the Bathtub and foraging for food in the proper way. For example, upon seeing one of the community teaching Hushpuppy to open a crab with a knife, Wink leaps to his feet and demands she ‘Beast it!’ by breaking it with her bare hands. A difficult task for a small girl.
To the delight of locals and her father she manages it, then rises to her feet to slam a tiny fist to her chest in defiance. It’s a touching moment, one that sums up the tone of the film, spirit of the characters and dynamic of the close-knit community.
Everything fitting together just right
Hushpuppy’s life view is that the natural world is in balance with the universe and, in order for it all to work, everything has to fit together just right. As a result of a storm hitting the Bathtub, her world gets thrown into chaos. Rising water forces residents to live in their boats and fight to survive.
At the same time the polar ice caps melt, releasing fearsome, ancient beasts called Aurochs, which appear to be heading straight for the Bathtub. Hushpuppy must learn to be strong, save the Bathtub and her father if she can – then face down the mythical, mighty creatures to protect her community.
Wondrous Quvenzhané Wallis
It’s not clear whether the Aurochs are Hushpuppy’s imagination, a symptom of her fear that the world is crumbling around her. What is clear is that Wallis – a first-time actress, 7 years old at the time of filming – is astonishing in the lead role. She holds the screen incredibly well, her fierce, little face immensely captivating. As a protagonist, she’s spellbinding. I was with her all the way, hoping against hope she survives her ordeal.
Henry – as her father Wink – was also a joy to watch. He initially lacked sympathy, seeming not to care about his daughter’s well-being. As the film unfolds you begin to understand their relationship and the degree to which he does care and wants her to survive.
At the end of this tale I had mixed emotions. On the one hand it seemed sweet, life-affirming and uplifting; on the other it was tremendously sad, tender and cruel. From the point of view of a small girl in that environment, perhaps that was the point. Life, nature and survival is simultaneously cruel, beautiful and magical – to make it through you have to be as strong and eternally hopeful as Hushpuppy.