Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Directed by: Benh Zeitlin

Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry

Plot: Hushpuppy, a 6 year old girl,  tries to put the pieces of her life back together when her father becomes ill.

Review: The American dream has always been associated with success and the possibility of obscene wealth through hard work, perseverance, and absurd determination under the guise of having the freedom of choice. That freedom is rarely depicted as choosing not to be successful (at least not in the traditional way) and just be happy with what you have. When it is depicted this way, it is usually a fast tracking yuppie who is happier with his fancy apartment and flat screen instead of multi-million dollar mansions on each coast or a paranoid he-man living off the grid in his hunting cabin that reeks more of pretense than individualism. In this way, Beasts of the Southern Wild captures that corner of the American dream that is a bit darker but no less joyful and appreciative than the popular representation.

This particular corner of America is known as The Bathtub. It is a shantytown community cut off from the mainland by a levee in bayou country. This shantytown is filled with all kinds of Southern eccentrics living off the land the best they can. They never make themselves out to be victims even though they are not living as easy or as well compared to most Americans’ standards. In fact, they love the way they live and celebrate it all the time.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy on her father’s makeshift boat

Hushpuppy is a one of these eccentrics of The Bathtub and our main protagonist. She is an adventurous 6 year old girl, who sees the world differently than most people. Reality is her canvas on which to draw. She can very easily pin a shirt to a wall, paint a face above it, and talk to it as if it is a real person. When she is really quiet and puts her ear close by, she can hear nature’s heartbeat. She can hear nature singing. Everything has a different sounds she says as she puts everything from frogs to leaves to her ears. She is incredibly resourceful and intelligent for her age, but she is still occasionally hampered by her naivety. If this is the role first time actress Quvenzhané Wallis will have to out do, she is in for a tough career. She brings a charming wide-eyed sense of wonder and amusement to a world that would be traditionally hard to stomach. By looking at this place and these people through her eyes, you can look at it without all the innate tragedy. Just don’t get on her bad side because her scowl is so intense it could set fire to anything she looks at.

It is because of her that the movie takes on a fairytale like quality, and not one of those frilly Disney ones either. I am talking about a down and dirty Grimm cautionary tale. Shortly into the movie, the plot starts as Wink, Hushpuppy’s father, goes missing. He has become ill and is being treated at a hospital, but because he doesn’t like the Dryland’s help, he escapes back to the Bathtub and his Hushpuppy. The problem is Wink is all Hushpuppy has left, and as he gets sicker, the world starts to crumble. Their humble home is flooded by a great storm, and the levees protecting the Dryland keep the Bathtub engulfed in water. The icecaps are melting releasing prehistoric beasts that make waste to everything in their way. Worse yet, the Dryland is invading and uprooting the Bathtub residents, and all they want to do is live on.

Beasts of the Southern wild

Two very different kinds of “beasts”

Hushpuppy believes that the universe is made up of all these little pieces, and when one piece breaks (her dad gets sick), the universe falls apart. She sees it as her duty to put the world back together, but she doesn’t know how. She needs a sage. A wizard. A fairy godmother, but her mother is long gone. It is never clear if she died or ran away, but she isn’t there anymore. She now only exists in Hushpuppy’s imagination which is based on her father’s romanticized memories of their relationship. He says she was so beautiful that she never had to light the stove; the fire would just turn on by itself. Her father talks about the day she was conceived. How him and her mother just stared each other for hours while sipping beer and then the next day, there was Hushpuppy. She searches for her mother anyway and possibly comes across her in a brothel. She isn’t one of the girls but rather the cook who works behind the bar. She is sweating up a storm and sipping on beer reminiscent of all of Wink’s stories. We as the audience never get a good look at her. She is constantly in our peripheral speaking soft words of wisdom that mesmerize Hushpuppy and strengthen the notion that this is some modern American fairtytale. There is no telling if it was really her or a stranger or even a dream, but Hushpuppy gets what she needed.

One critic, Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Stephen Rea, says the film is “patched together with found materials, conjured up by untrained artists (the actors), and evocative of a truly American attitude of eccentricity, boldness, [and] transcendence,” and ever since I read that I cannot help but look at it any other way. It is a great companion piece to American New Wave cinema like Easy Rider and Cool Hand Luke with its bluntly honest portrayal of the Amercian spirit through counter-culture. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a humbling but joyful experience. It has shades of Malick’s Tree of Life through its camera work and existential pondering, but it doesn’t bog itself down with complicated subplots and imageries. It is a dramatic story with an adventurous spirit and a great sense of humor. It turns the bayou’s of Louisiana into a character on its own, one who grows and learns along with Hushpuppy, and it could come at no better time. The tragedy surrounding Hurricane Katrina still looms over the region as well as the film, but it takes great pride in depicting the triumph of the human spirit and the complications of the human condition that are born out of such a tragedy

Rating: 10/10