Beasts of the Southern Wild is an astonishing debut film. Its cinematography, score, and lead performances are among the most compelling of the year, drawing apt comparisons to Terrance Malick and David Gordon Green, whose pastoral films are often unnerving in their attention to man’s connection (or lack thereof) to nature. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film about community, a unique community of survivors stranded but enjoying life on The Bathtub, a tiny island that’s the only un-flooded piece of land in what used to be the Louisiana bayou. Director Benh Zeitlin and writer Lucy Alibar—working from Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious—are never quite clear about what happened to Louisiana or how the remaining United States could so callously erect a levee separating The Bathtub from civilization, but given the biblical rainstorm and the melting polar ice caps, it’s obvious that nature is not just something to be in awe or take advantage of, but an irresistible force. Humans, in the face of such power, are ever the movable objects.
But the people living in The Bathtub are resilient, tragically so. Early on, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), the film’s six-year-old narrator, leads us through this place. Though signs of trouble are evident—the film is quite liberal in its application of ruin and rust, and characters wear sub-thrift store quality clothing—Hushpuppy looks at life on the island as something special and idyllic, not exactly untroubled, as her relationship to her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), will later attribute, but nice enough compared to the worries of folks in the city across the bay. In The Bathtub, people live on what nature provides. There’s enough fish, poultry, beer, and vegetation to go round, and things have been going round now for sometime.
Hushpuppy and the children living on the island with her go to school to learn the basics of survival. Despite the fireworks and baby races of the film’s opening minutes, Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in a ruined world teetering on the brink of complete destruction. Hushpuppy’s teacher (Gina Montana) talks about a race of beasts called the Aurochs—great, man-eating pigs who existed only as engines of destruction. Kill or be killed, is the message. Take care of your own or get taken care of.
Hushpuppy’s dad isn’t exactly in the business of taking care of his own. After spending the bulk of the year with the film’s excellent, unavoidable trailer in my head, it was rather jarring to see several moments spun as pieces of a whimsical father-daughter relationship come instead from a place of raw, devastating meanness. Hushpuppy’s relationship with Wink, the driving force of the film, is one teeming with fear. Having set her house on fire—the two live in separate houses, and Hushpuppy is trusted with gadgets like flamethrowers—Hushpuppy hides under a cardboard box as Wink storms the house, looking for her. It isn’t the thought of being consumed by fire that impels Hushpuppy to flee her burning shelter, but the thought of being caught by Wink. The ensuing confrontation between the two—Wink slaps Hushpuppy, Hushpuppy tells Wink she hopes he dies so she can eat cake on his grave, Hushpuppy punches Wink in the heart hard enough to upset a sickness that worsens as the film goes on—is the first of several incredibly tragic sequences. But the two never separate for long, and from there Wink is determined to instill in her some sense of masculinity, something he believes she’ll need once he’s gone. The relationship between the two oscillates between Hushpuppy’s belief that her actions are what’s responsible for the world breaking, and Wink coming to realize his daughter’s unique, self-fashioned strength.
The performance of Quvenzhane Wallis is Beasts of the Southern Wild’s strongest asset. Young and untrained, she has a genuine, unforced nature that captivates, propelling the film through even its murkiest sequences. A child philosopher and a patently unreliable narrator—are the monsters pursuing her real, or a figment of the imagination?—Hushpuppy’s various theories about the nature of the world and her role in it, without Wallis’ untrained readings, would sound too esoteric, too purposefully vague, too precocious. However naïve Hushpuppy’s beliefs, her soliloquies have the benefit of sounding like hard-won knowledge. The relationship between her and Wink also feels more grounded as a result of the actors in these roles, essential given the film’s use of magical realism. Before starring in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Dwight Henry owned a deli across the street from the casting agency. If what transpires between he and Wallis never feels quite like true father/daughter interaction—and given what passes as Wink’s idea of fatherhood, that’s just as well—that their relationship plays like two people living together and not an actor and a child actress working together makes things that much more visceral.
The metaphors used by Beasts of the Southern Wild are often blunt, something akin to a railroad spike driven home with a sledgehammer. Katrina imagery looms large over the flooded Bathtub, and the survivors clear status as second- or third-class citizens is meant to be evocative of those left behind in New Orleans, even if the hurricane and the city are left unmentioned. The club Hushpuppy eventually finds herself in—a strip joint offering food and the companionship of adults, but also the sad realities of life away from The Bathtub and Wink, a place Hushpuppy was clearly not meant to stay—is called Elysian Fields, a little too on-the-nose considering who Hushpuppy thinks she meets there and the significance of that missing person to her incomplete childhood. That’s a consequence of using a child’s point-of-view as the film’s frame of reference, the added storybook sheen that sometimes twists the knife and sometimes feels alien.
Another consequence is that Hushpuppy’s unquestioned love of The Bathtub and those living in it sometimes comes across as the filmmakers paying reverence to a band of noble savages. Well-intentioned or un-thought of, Wink’s almost-unquestioned leadership of the refugees and the film’s constant praising of them for living as nature gives and scrapping by when nature takes away feels creepily similar to the cult worship of the noble savage in other films. When Hushpuppy is taken in by the government and is put in a dress with her hair combed back, Wink’s resistance and Hushpuppy’s silence are clear signals that something is wrong, that these people, rescued from their flooded wasteland, are prisoners. Their escape and flight back home is meant as this swelling moment of uplift. Maybe, putting aside all notions of responsibility, it is. But The Bathtub and Wink’s way of living aren’t just dangerous, they’re doomed. Tragic as the fate of those living in The Bathtub may be, that their resolve to stay is played for cheers may be Beasts of the Southern Wild’s most subtle twist of the knife.
Beasts of the Southern Wild. With Quvenzhane Wallis (Hushpuppy), Dwight Henry (Wink), and Gina Montana (Miss Bathsheba). Directed by Benh Zeitlin from a screenplay by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Alibar.