Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film by Behn Zeitlin from June 2012 about a neglected six-year old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). She lives in a shack next to her father’s shack, Wink (Dwight Henry), in “the Bathtub” a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Alarmingly Hushpuppy’s ‘house’ has a gas burner stove that she has to light using a blow torch. Not surprisingly Hushpuppy ‘accidentally’ burns her ‘house’ down while trying to cook herself some dinner and sulk at her father’s seeming indifference towards her. Wink is an alcoholic and is terse to neglectful to abusive towards Hushpuppy, which some reviewers call tough love. He disappears for a couple of days and returns in a hospital gown so I assumed that he had a mental illness (which would explain his otherwise inexplicably variable mental state) but it turns out that he has a mysterious and fatal illness (maybe leukemia?). Hushpuppy’s mother either died or abandoned her (not clear from the film) when she was very young.
The Bathtub lies outside the New Orleans Bayou levee walls and is in constant danger of flooding so it’s considered unfit for human occupation. Some misfits persist in living here in abject poverty, perpetually drunk and partying, neglecting their children, not working, and surviving through gathering food and small agriculture/animal husbandry. I feared for the safety of Hushpuppy in this renegade community living outside the boundaries of human decency and society. Her father feeds her with the pigs and dogs, hits her when he loses his temper, and abandons her for days at a time, leaving her wearing only underpants and a singlet and open to abuse by others in the community (although no abuse is shown).
Wallis is an astonishing actress and Hushpuppy is defiantly strong, finding a way to not only survive but thrive and connect to her environment by listening to the voice of everything, even inanimate objects as she scampers around in her underpants. Wink in his taciturn way prepares her for the unravelling of the universe; for a time when he’s no longer there to protect her. He is only able to connect with her in a tough manly way, by yelling at her to ‘beast’ things, challenging her to an arm wrestling contest, and shouting ‘You the man Hushpuppy’ when she manages to pull apart a crab with her hands.
When Wink becomes seriously ill, nature becomes temperamental as temperatures rise and the ice caps melt, unleashing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. After being told about aurochs by her teacher, Hushpuppy begins dreaming about them moving steadily closer towards her. Following the ‘apocalypse’ of monumental flooding, followed by enforced evacuation, escape and the realisation that her father is actually dying, Hushpuppy’s dreams become a living reality. Hushpuppy sets off in search for her mother with 3 ‘friends’ from the Bathtub. Once again I feared for her safety as she hitched a ride to a floating brothel where she encountered her mother or at least the spirit of her mother. As she returns to the Bathtub the aurochs finally reach her. As her father looks on from his deathbed, Hushpuppy fearlessly faces down the awesome, enormous beasts who bow before her. What follows is the most touching scene of the film, when she sits beside her father and each sheds a tear (despite his frequent refrain that she mustn’t cry).
At the end of the film I was filled with despair for the future of Hushpuppy, an orphan living in a community of drunken misfits and with no protection or guardianship, constantly at risk of more catastrophic flooding and with limited educational prospects and no work prospects. What future could possibly face her other than alcoholism, unemployment and maybe more abusive relationships?
The filming style of the handheld camera is disconcerting to begin with but I soon became accustomed to it. The environment of the setting is sometimes attractive but always punctuated by squalor. Halfway through the film (borrowed from our library) my husband went to sleep and I questioned whether I should persist considering that it wasn’t particularly engaging. I did persist and I’m somewhat glad that I did but I can’t help wondering what exactly Zeitlin was trying to show in this film? What could be the ‘take-home’ message? Is Zeitlin guilty of the racism that is accused in this interesting review? Did American critics and audiences like it because of the racism that reviewer refers to (similar to the saccharine racism in The Secret Life of Bees)?