Movie review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fantastical celebration of the interconnectedness of all things.

But while that fact is acknowledged almost from the first frame in this magical movie from first time director, Benh Zeitlin, who also wrote the screenplay with Lucy Alibar (adapted from her play Juicy and Delicious), and reaffirmed throughout, Zeitlin doesn’t give us a vision of some trippy hippy New Age world of hand holding dreamers mouthing empty platitudes about brotherly togetherness.

Rather the world that our fierce, diminutive six year old protagonist, Hush Puppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) inhabits is desperately real; a gritty ramshackle world held together by little more than a fervent, and possibly erroneous belief that it can endure anything the world outside can throw at it.

Hush Puppy, who is possessed of a wisdom and confidence beyond her years, I suspect because she has had to raise herself for the most part, lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in the Bathtub, a poor community perched on the edge of the bayou in southern Louisiana.

(image via slate.com)

Their existence is a precarious one, one storm away from annihilation but they celebrate the world they inhabit with gusto, and defend its virtues, such as they are, with a verve and spirit that they contend is lacking in the “Dry World” on the other side of the levee.

In fact one of the early scenes in the movie shows the community coming together for a festival that seems to last all day and all night, involves the copious imbibing of alcohol (not an unusual occurrence) and the letting off of many homemade fireworks. It is capped by Wink’s drunken evocation of all that is good and laudatory about the world they live in.

To more affluent eyes, their lives are deprived ones, absent of many of the things that we consider necessary for a fulfilling life. But to Wink, who scornfully paints life in the “Dry World” as a life of “fish wrapped in plastic” and once-a-year holidays, the citizens of The Bathtub hold all the cards, inhabitants of a world that richly rewards those who live there.

The filming of the festival scene (image via online.wsj.com)

But while there is an undeniable community spirit that bonds them all together, the Bathtub is not the unassailable idyll that Wink vigorously asserts it to be.

And when the storm floods their community, which is as flawed as any gathering of people anywhere, they are initially unsure about how to handle the intrusion of the wider world into their small slice of it.

Being the hardy, practical souls they are, they do eventually rally, and there is a coming together of those that survived the storm. Still even with this hardened resolve to rebuild their lives, that has to surmount many obstacles if it to gain them any semblance of their former life, it is clear that their world will never be the same again.

It’s a reality that comes crashing down on Hush Puppy as one thing after another disappears from her universe, and she has to adapt quickly or risk being cast adrift.

Hush Puppy adrift on the bayou after the storm (image via blogafi.org)

That she does adapt is no surprise since Wink had taught her that she would be the “man” and “the king of The Bathtub” (a sign he wanted a boy perhaps?). Self reliance is a mantra she has had drilled into her from a young age.

But it is still heartbreaking, and yet empowering, to see one so young trying to gather so many broken pieces together, of not just her life but everyone else’s, and while she is successful up to a point at doing just that, is clear that life will never be the same again.

And she knows it.

She may be only six but Hush Puppy is able to weather the storms, real and virtual, that would stop people many years older than her in their tracks (image via thethousands.com.au)

She is the one person who seems to be intimately aware of the way everyone is connected, of her small but pivotal place in the scheme of things and says as much at one point:

“I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe.”

You see her listening to the heartbeats of all the animals around – the chickens, the crabs, any living thing really that comes across her path (it’s no accident that her alcoholic father, who alternates between caring for her and ignoring her, suffers from a terminal heart condition) – a sign that she knows how connected she is to the life around her.

She also seems to appreciate more than most that the small world she inhabits – where life is so unvarnished and real that its inhabitants are far more connected to the world around them than any of the dwellers in the “Dry World” will ever be – is part of a larger landscape, which in turn is part of a much larger worldwide tapestry of forces such as global warming, a potent symbol of forces beyond the control of mere mortals.

Hush Puppy finally meets and confronts the fabled auroch (image via kpbs.org)

And just like the cavemen and the now-extinct aurochs before her – the aurochs appear throughout as the harbingers of the Bathtub’s possible oblivion , just one of the many fantasy elements woven into the film –  Hush Puppy and her ragtag community are headed for extinction too unless they can re-establish their place in the grand interlocked scheme of things.

It’s a lot of weight for one small girl to bear but Hush Puppy, and the actress who plays here, seem more than capable of carrying it off, and it’s that sense of wondrous optimism in the face of damning adversity that goes with you as you leave the theatre.

It is, in the end, a mystical inspiring and almost poetic movie that dares to believe things can get better, even in the face of every sign to the contrary.

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