Film review of Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (USA, 2012)
Hushpuppy: “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.”
At six years old, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is the youngest warrior of the bayou. Raised by her abrasive alcoholic father, Hushpuppy knows nothing of the world beyond “The Bathtub,” a small, destitute, off-the-grid community of people on the bayou determined to live on the land (or water, in the case of flooding) despite the adverse conditions. Merely a levee separates it from mainland Louisiana, however The Bathtub is a world of its own, governed intermittently by raucous celebration, communal endurance of hardship, and a fierce spirit of independence. Like all residents of The Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her father subsist on a diet of alcohol, fish, and chicken, own only what can be found and assembled, and rely upon the most primal of instincts to maintain survival. Save for her father, who cares deeply about Hushpuppy but is seldom affectionate and often abuses her after binge drinking, Hushpuppy is very much alone in this world. The one enduring thing she does have, though, is her capacity to dream.
Through the lens of magical realism, Benh Zeitlin allows us to enter the realm of a unique child’s vivid imagination. Hushpuppy’s imaginative capacities are bolstered by her extremely limited educational resources and the persistent need to cope with trauma through mental escape. She invents answers to all of the timeless questions that plague her life and existence at large with an effortless lyricism. “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe,” Hushpuppy muses, “and that makes it right.” We escape with Hushpuppy into visions both intimate and grandiose: we watch as Hushpuppy cooks a can of cat food for her mother, inventing the conversation; we watch as Hushpuppy delves into visions of ominous melting glaciers and massive prehistoric boar-like beasts. To engage her imagination, Hushpuppy’s father tells her mystical stories of her origins and of the love he shared with her mother. In Hushuppy’s world, imagination reigns.
When Hushpuppy’s father disappears for days on end and abruptly returns in a hospital gown sans explanation, what was already an unpredictable existence begins to assume a new kind of chaos. The community teacher/shaman warns of an impending storm that will flood The Bathtub. The hurricane is seen as an augury of cosmic changes to come, and only weak members of the community will flee in the face of destruction. Hushpuppy’s father, determined to teach Hushpuppy resilience and self-sufficiency, barricades them inside a small shack. While Hushpuppy’s father descends into alcoholism, the storm rages outside, the water rises, and Hushpuppy retreats into her imagination inside a small, precarious boat. The aftermath of the hurricane brings what every resident of The Bathtub fears most: relief efforts. A haunting depiction of modern life follows as we view the relief effort from Hushpuppy’s vantage point. Strange, soulless people from the other side of the levee have intruded upon The Bathtub in order to capture and control its residents in an evacuation camp, and though Hushpuppy’s father is becoming critically ill, he will have none of it. Hushpuppy, then, is left to fend for both her father and herself. Somehow, they must find their way back to The Bathtub, and somehow Hushpuppy must save her father from death, but first Hushpuppy is going to look for her mother… on this side of the levee.
Quvenzhané Wallis, a non-actor, delivers an unforgettable performance that would demand viewing of the film even if the content were mediocre. (Her raw talent is reminiscent of the four-year-old French child actress Victoire Thivisol in Ponette.) With breathtaking charisma and soulful eyes, Wallis ushers us into Hushpuppy’s dreamlike narrative, filling the wide gaps between sparse dialogue with heartrending moments of humanity. Wallis’s performance affords a visceral experience of the more surreal elements of the film; the intensity of her body language serves as a portal into both her own internal landscape as well as the surrealist scenes without a clear cause-and-effect structure. Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild feels a lot like watching yourself wander through a reserve of your most poignant childhood memories, overcome with intense colors, sensations, and sounds as a pervasive sense of longing and wonder envelopes you. The experience is as haunting as it is sensational.
In one scene, Hushpuppy, in search of her mother, wanders into a Nola nightclub filled with female dancers. One dancer takes an interest in her, and the two lost souls dance together, temporarily filling one another’s voids. In the woman’s arms, Hushpuppy recalls the touch of her mother, whispering, “This is my favorite thing.” Because of the dreamlike, fragmental quality of this scene and the fullness of sensation, we are unsure whether it is wish-fulfillment or reality, but in the end, it doesn’t matter; it’s a simple, honest, unpretentious meditation on how it feels for a young child to have lost someone she never had the chance to love.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is of a new breed of film (think: Tree of Life, Martha Marcy May Marlene) wherein surrealistic impressions coupled with intense moments of realism drive us to uncover depths of humanity that often remain dormant in our everyday lives. It’s a must-see.