Beasts of the Southern Wild is a Delta tall tale, told by a six-year-old named Hushpuppy, about a place called the Bathtub where the teachers use their bodies as blackboards, there are magic gators, and prehistoric creatures called aurochs threaten the world with floods. The Bathtub is a forgotten community perched precariously at the bottom of Louisiana, below the levees. The people there build their homes high in trees. They live off of chickens and hogs and if those run out, animals they once thought of as pets. Hushpuppy and her father have a boat that is made out of a truck bed. They do not have iPhones.
A storm comes and with it a flood and Hushpuppy’s aurochs, gnarly boarlike creatures with triceratops-like horns. Many of the residents flee above the levee but Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) along with some others stay. They’re too proud to be told to leave the land they love, even if they’re being told by government, common sense, or Mother Nature. The bathtub is drowned, the water comes up to the doorsteps of the treetop houses.The plot recounts Hushpuppy’s odyssey towards something like adulthood, or as she might put it, being “cohesive.” She is searching for her mother, who left the doomed area years ago and her journey takes her through the Bathtub, the levee, the city, and a floating pleasure bar that’s used for fishermen looking for a affection but serves Hushpuppy’s purposes as an island of lost mothers.
In voice-over narration that comprises much of the movie, Hushpuppy tells us about the balance of the universe, she reveals her longing to be known generations from now, her resistance to being forgotten. She and her father have a strained but loving relationship. He’s a man with too many responsibilities and not enough outlets for his anger. He cares about his daughter, he wants to protect her and he won’t leave the Bathtub. He doesn’t seem to understand that those things are at odds with each other.
Hushpuppy narrates the story like a fairy tale, one she seems to be making up as she goes along. Actions don’t have a lot of consequences and some threads are dropped entirely, these lapses in narrative structure don’t detract from the overall feel of the film, which is intentionally aimless and esoteric. Benh Zeitlin, directing for the first time, is more interested in looks and feelings than telling a traditional story. It’s a risky endeavor, one that he mainly pays off. Adult stories about children who make up fantasies to escape their hard lives have been done before but those usually show an obvious break with what’s real and what’s not. Hushpuppy’s fantasy, with the exception of the aurochs, is that the Bathtub is a place worth defiantly remaining in. Wink, who often refers to her in masculine terms, tells her she’ll be king of the Bathtub one day. From the way Zeitlin presents it, that doesn’t seem like much of an honor.
The place is almost post-apocalyptic, trash and discarded pieces of machinery are strung everywhere. The people there barely exist; they seem jovial but it’s hard to tell why. The only thing that is in abundance is alcohol; almost every shot of an adult includes a glass or a bottle. Yet, the images have a power, they are elemental, they show a real place and real people. They emphasize the simple joy of fireworks or cooking your own meal. Coupled with the poetic story, the natural images create an artistic power. Hushpuppy doesn’t have a lovely home and her upbringing would draw the attention of social services, but it’s her home and her upbringing and we believe her when she says it’s worth fighting for.
It’s hard to say how much of the success of the movie is due to the wonderful performances by Wallis as a curious, headstrong Hushpuppy and Henry as the volatile Wink, but my gut says the film owes them a great deal. Wallis gets our sympathy immediately but Henry has to earn it, especially after he lashes out against his daughter early in the film. They share a scene on the truck bed boat in which Wink teaches Hushpuppy how to catch a catfish with her bare hands that defies intellectual criticism. It’s just lovely.
Much of the movie is that way. It’s hard to define the spell Beasts of the Southern Wild casts. It’s a modern story, it’s impossible to divorce the movie from Hurricane Katrina, it’s a fantasy and it’s something like neo-realism all at once. Many seasoned directors would cower trying to balance those elements so the fact that Zeitlin confidently pushes on without the enterprise floundering is remarkable. It feels like the structures of the Bathtub, patched together from disparate elements. The effect is mesmerizing, contemplative, even a little spiritual. It’s a very good movie.