“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a small miracle of a film. The story takes place in a fictional island called the Bathtub, just behind the levies of New Orleans. There, a small, diverse colony of indigent families and individuals live, hunt for food, and play.
By Noah Gittell
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a small miracle of a film. The story takes place in a fictional island called the Bathtub, just behind the levies of New Orleans. There, a small, diverse colony of indigent families and individuals live, hunt for food, and play. Their lives could not be more meager; our hero, a 5-year old girl named Hushpuppy, lives with her father in a shack. They raise chickens for food but are sometimes are forced to eat cans of cat food. There is a small school in the neighborhood, but their curriculum eschews textbooks. The children are taught what they really need to know in life: one day soon the waters will rise, and Bathtub will be swallowed by the sea.
The allusions to climate change are important. In real life, the ocean levels are rising and there has been an increase in extreme weather events like storms, twisters, and wildfires. As theses events increase, it will be the poor who are affected the most. “Beasts of a Southern Wild” explains their suffering in real and vivid terms, yet still manages to leave viewers on a note of optimism.
Such a storm hits, and the water rises sooner than expected. Because the residents of Bathtub live just outside the levies, all of the water runs toward them, flooding their town. She and her father – and some of their friends – refuse to flee, and they wait out the storm. When it passes, their entire town is flooded, and the little that they own has been destroyed. The allusions to Hurricane Katrina are unmistakable, but, in this case, no one is coming to save them, and there are no news reporters sharing their suffering with the world.
The bond between Hushpuppy and her father carries the film. At first, he comes off as a monster: drinking, disappearing for days on end. But as the film goes on, we learn how important their relationship is. It is almost all they have. While Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 4 when the film was made, has received the lion’s share of the credit for her portrayal of Hushpuppy, it is Dwight Henry, as her father, Wink, who caught my eye. His performance has a lived-in quality, and it’s no surprise; as the proprietor of a bakery in the Seventh Ward in New Orleans, he understands this material in a way that few do.
In an act of defiance, Wink blows a hole in the levy, causing the waters to recede. This sparks interest from the authorities, and soon the resident of Bathtub are living in a city shelter. There, young Hushpuppy, she of the wild hair and indomitable spirit, is shoved into a pink dress with a tight bun on her head. Wink is bedridden, being treated for a disease he has been carrying for far too long.
But it’s the final third of the film that shows a true revolutionary spirit: Hushpuppy and her father flee the care of the shelter to return to their homes. The allegiance of the residents of Bathtub to their homes is a stark contrast to how the poor are typically depicted in film, in which they will do anything to escape their surroundings. Hushpuppy and her family live by different rules. They lack food, adequate shelter, and, of course, money – their homes and their sense of community are all they have. In this way, “Beasts of a Southern Wild’ sounds a note of pride by an entire class of people who have been marginalized by our political system.
Much credit must go to director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin, a 29-year-old first-time director. This movie is full of the kind of bold choices only a young director could make, but Zeitlin never takes a wrong step. Using local actors (and non-actors) for every role gives the film an unmistakable authenticity. He also introduces a touch of magic realism, in just the right dosage, to give us a small bit of relief from the Bathtub. And, most importantly, he never condescends to his subjects.
“Beasts of a Southern Wild” is a unique vision that makes audiences sit up and take notice. I hope more people get a chance to see it. Our world will be a bit better if they do.
My Rating: See it in the Theatre