Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Screenplay by Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
How long is Beasts of the Southern Wild? 93 minutes.
What is Beasts of the Southern Wild rated? PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality.
Bayou country is nothing if not fertile. It breeds its own native monsters … the 19 foot long alligator, the 200 pound snapping turtle. It hospitably incubates invasive newcomers. And out of its primordial muck, from under the same low, water-kissing sky, comes a flow of images to which our minds seem especially sensitive. That may be the real source of power behind the ambitious and powerful Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Which is not to detract in any way from the film’s other sources of power: from the outstanding performances of Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry or the ambition of its young director and writer, Benh Zeitlin and co-author Lucy Alibar.
Zeitlin and Alibar reworked an original one act play by Alibar as the basis for Beasts of the Southern Wild. Zeitlin was raised in New York City, Alibar in Florida and Georgia. Maybe it’s germane that Zeitlin’s mother is a native South Carolinean. Whether Southern roots were involved or not, Zeitlin and Alibar located Beasts in The Bathtub, a fictional pocket of bayou country adjacent to New Orleans. It is a special place anthropologically (Zeitlin’s parents are anthropologists) and ecologically. It is fecund, fragile, and Biblical in feel. It evokes Genesis when the second day of creation passes into the third and God says, “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together in one place, and let the dry land appear.”
If you’ve ever had an opportunity to look over the art of Walter Inglis Anderson, himself a product of bayou, ocean, and the city of New Orleans, you will have some sense of how bayou country speaks to the moment of creation, to the proliferation of natural forms, to their dazzling variety, teeming numbers, and individual transience. Beasts of the Southern Wild supplies us with image after image of the Bathtub’s plants and animals. We see goats, cows, horses, chickens, dogs, an enormous sow, alligators, boat loads of jittering crabs, catfish, bagworms. Zeitlin and Alibar, the film’s cameramen and actors seemed to connect completely with this energy of place, drawing on its archetypes of birth and death, growth and dissolution, waxing and waning, fertility and barrenness, wildness and civilization, chaos and order, part and whole. This takes the film very far and deep, and vaults it over its own weaknesses.
Along with energy of place, comes a specific manifestation of that energy in the person of young (as in 6 years young when the film was shot) Quevenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, the film’s narrator and heroine. Wallis, a schoolgirl from Houma, Louisiana, confronts the camera untutored, dead-on, and fearless. She can juice it up and she can flatten it out, as required, but her Hushpuppy is always skinny, strong, disheveled, intense, thoughtful and thoroughly believable. We first see her holding a live bird to her ear, listening intently. She loves her precarious world. She also loves and is simultaneously enraged by her unreliable alcoholic father. In urgent need of the mother who has either died or abandoned her long ago, Hushpuppy struggles with an impending sense of doom.
Hushpuppy and her daddy Wink, played by another gifted “amateur” actor, New Orleanian Dwight Henry, live in adjacent derelict trailers. They are part of a small community of dropouts, ne’er-do-wells, and eccentrics who choose to live free but impoverished off the bounty of sea and bayou and on the fringes of urban society. They are just out of sight of the big levees surrounding New Orleans and the Gulf’s offshore oilrigs. They are also on the edge of a continent, subject to hurricanes and land-devouring incursions of salt water. Geologically speaking, their habitat is doomed. But Wink is fighting it all: loneliness, alcoholism, climate change, Mother Nature herself, and, as we come to understand, his own mortality, in the form of illness. He believes he will teach his daughter how to survive, though we see early on how much he fails her.
What Hushpuppy comes to understand and how she manages to face it are the business of the film’s second half. At this point Beasts of the Southern Wild becomes at once more busily narrative and more fantastical. More events happen, but the line between imaginary and real becomes less clear. The Bathtub is inundated by seawater after a Katrina-like hurricane. It is the beginning of the end. Though Wink and a cluster of holdouts outlast the storm and defy orders to evacuate, even going so far as to blow the levee to siphon off the brackish water that is destroying their paradise, they are eventually forced into evacuation camps on the mainland. Hushpuppy learns for sure what she has probably suspected: that her father is dying. As her terror increases, her imagination of terror becomes more real and more intrusive. In school on the bayou she has been taught about prehistoric animals, the Ice Age and climate change, and she visualizes an apocalyptic scenario in which rampaging boar-like aurochs, released from blocks of glacial ice by global warming, devour and destroy. They become emblematic of every evil that threatens, and they draw closer and closer. Her psyche, her father, her home, and her world are all in peril.
In the second half, also, in places, the film momentarily falters. Zeitlin and Alibar have been leap-frogging back and forth over the boundaries between the real and the fantastical, and mostly I forgot those boundaries even existed. But every so often the effects of poverty and alcoholism seemed airbrushed, and the scenes in the evacuation center, with all the expected pot shots at bureaucrats and the medical establishment, felt hollow and even a little unfair. In spite of its fascinating social texture, this is not a film commentary on society but a poem about the condition of man in nature. The residents of the Bathtub are not certain people; they are all people.
In the end Beasts of the Southern Wild lands soundly on its feet. It is a major accomplishment, beautiful and serious enough to afford its own mistakes. The flame-lit, sensual, dream-disordered sequence in the offshore house of prostitution where Hushpuppy is reconciled to her mother’s absence and her own need to be mothered captures something so essential about the nature of maternal love that I can’t put it into words. The beasts that threaten Hushpuppy are not slain but accepted. The vision is finally Buddhist, a loving yes to the whole hot mess, with the bayou country’s merged horizons of sea, land, and sky underlying and supporting it.
* Beasts of the Southern Wild, released in 2012, has won many awards including the Camera d’Or Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.