Beasts of the Southern Wild
Duncan Wu admires (with some caveats) a synecdochal exploration of family, loss and the end times’ bitter waters
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Starring Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry
Released in the UK on 19 October
We didn’t have time to sit around and cry like pussies,” says the heroine of Beasts of the Southern Wild, six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), after a hurricane wipes out the shanty town in which she and Wink (Dwight Henry), her father, live. Benh Zeitlin’s first feature doesn’t always look squarely at the hideously scarred face of reality, but when it does the dividends are considerable - and the film is never more persuasive than when it forces its characters to fight their corner.
Environmental disaster is a principal theme. At school, Hushpuppy learns about the aurochs, once extinct but resurrected in her imagination as heralds of apocalypse. “Any day now the fabric of the Universe is comin’ unravelled,” she tells us. This isn’t as whimsical as it sounds, for the film is set in the region beyond the levees of southern Louisiana, in which uneven porches and sidewalks testify to the fact that the land is gradually sinking into the Gulf of Mexico - an area badly hit by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Here, apprehensions of global disaster are not merely appropriate but manifest. “Trees are gonna die first,” Hushpuppy remarks, “then the animals, then the fish.”
The film’s principal device is synecdoche: southern Louisiana stands at an extreme and in choosing to focus on its environmental problems, Zeitlin attempts to speak of those faced by the wider world. The problem with the levees is their fallibility - as borne out by more than 50 failures during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. If the rest of the world places its faith in such measures as (for instance) emissions trading to combat climate change, who knows what the consequences will be?
For Hushpuppy, the levees are a problem for another reason: they make her home more susceptible to flooding than it would be otherwise. “They built the walls that cuts us off,” she observes. This makes her and her community outsiders in other ways, too. Permanently intoxicated, unemployable, resigned to their collective fate, they live beyond the reach of the law, comprising an underworld beyond civilisation, survivors of the apocalypse before the event.
But at least they know how to party. They let off fireworks, drink themselves to sleep and come back to life after dark. For them, food comes not from the grocery store: instead, Wink reaches into the river and grabs a fish. It is an end-time paradise in which representatives of the modern world, however well-disposed, play the role of intruders. The community is suspicious of those who take its members to shelter, while the application of scientific techniques to Wink’s medical condition is a violation and an absurdity.
“When an animal gets sick,” Hushpuppy comments, “they plug it into the wall.” Her father’s repeated escapes to the freedom of the bayou seem like the only sane course of action.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is fantasy, and the film is not afraid of incorporating magical-realist elements, such as Hushpuppy’s excursion to a floating brothel called Elysian Fields, where she encounters her mother’s alter ego - a cook who throws raw alligator into the deep fat fryer and delivers a lesson in life: “One day it’s gonna be all on you. Everything on your plate gonna fall on the floor.” The entire episode appears to be structured around this piece of homespun philosophy, which drives the narrative.
When disaster strikes, Wink and Hushpuppy survive by their own efforts, casting themselves adrift in “the Bathtub” - the back end of a pickup truck - in which they ride out the cataclysm that descends upon them, like inhabitants of a latter-day Noah’s ark.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fascinating study of loss - of environmental stability, our homes and those closest to us. When it begins, Hushpuppy has already lost her mother in circumstances that remain unclear, and her father is clearly not the ideal guardian for a young child: his initial response to disaster is to drink lots of beer and go on a shooting spree. None of this augurs well for their survival or, more pertinently, Wink’s continuing ability to take care of Hushpuppy.
The film presents ample reason to deplore the US’ treatment of its poor, whose situation is worse than it needs to be. In that situation, the urging to take care of oneself has particular resonance. But this film is not blinkered or parochial. We are all, figuratively, in the Bathtub with Hushpuppy and Wink. We are all part of a global experiment that is unlikely to end well. In that context, the advice not to sit around and cry like pussies is apt.
It is idealistic of Zeitlin to show the community of which Hushpuppy and Wink are part getting along so well, despite containing people of black and white skin tones. The implication is that only by overlooking racial differences can we survive whatever environmental catastrophes lie ahead, and that is doubtless correct. All the same, it is a scenario that strains credibility, even when acted as persuasively as it is here. These people live in a part of the US known not for its racial harmony but for its divide, in the midst of an ecological mess - a situation in which blacks are notoriously prone to fare less well than whites.
I can see why Zeitlin, who co-wrote the film, shied away from that debate: race is a topic that drains the oxygen from whatever room it enters. But the price of not mentioning it while telling this particular story is to prompt even inattentive audience members to ask what kind of alternative universe its characters inhabit. Sometimes the option of staying in one’s shack and not venturing out isn’t adequate.
However, it would be unfair to suggest that the film’s makers are pusillanimous: one of the best things about Beasts of the Southern Wild is its willingness to take risks. Audiences simply have to accept that some things in it don’t work while others do.
Its most obvious success is the choice of principal players - Dwight Henry and Quvenzhane Wallis, whose incarnation of father and daughter is honest and unsoppy. Between them they emphasise the grudges, hard feelings, even the latent violence in the relationship as much as its closeness. From the outset of the film, we are plunged into the midst of a power play between father and daughter that finds resolution in the disaster that overwhelms them. That neither Wallis nor Henry has prior acting experience makes their achievement all the more impressive. Watch this film, too, for the aurochs, an unlikely addition to the supporting cast. They are too porcine fully to impersonate the grotesque, cattle-like creatures but nonetheless provide a welcome distraction from the apocalypse they portend.
I confess to a sneaking admiration for the film’s attempt to break out of the straitjacket of realist drama, the default for almost any contemporary story told in the cinema these days - and that may be the best response to reservations about its handling of race. The literal reality of much of what happens in Beasts of the Southern Wild is open to question, filtered as it is through the imagination of a six-year-old. The result is probably not a film to which one would take the average six-year-old, because it is so embroiled in the adult task of squaring the apprehensions of childhood with the less welcome ones of the early 21st century. But then that’s hardly something you would expect from the average Coke-and-popcorn flick, and the courageous spirit behind it should be encouraged.
Duncan Wu is professor of English, Georgetown University.