Beasts of the Southern Wild: A Messy, Magical Tale About Needing Others
You can tell Beasts of the Southern Wild is made by first-time feature writers, directors, and producers. They are unrestricted by the burden of knowing what a feature film is *supposed* to look like, feel like, sound like, be structured like. I can’t imagine a studio ever making a film like this. As a result, Beasts feels incredibly raw: it takes a buckshot approach to symbolism, it shapes an unconventional depiction of a father-daughter relationship, and it showcases massive animals thawed out from icebergs without the aid of CGI. Yet despite the clutter, Beasts is unmistakably human. I haven’t seen an area, a community, a relationship depicted precisely this way on screen before, and this specificity of vision makes its universal themes devastatingly personal.
We meet Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl living in The Bathtub, a community in the southern delta of Louisiana. She lives in a home next to her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who cooks for her but generally keeps a distance. Hurricane Katrina is never specifically referenced, but when a giant storm destroys their homes and the Bathtub in general, Wink’s primary concern in their interactions becomes to prepare Hushpuppy to be an adult (“the man,” he says) in a world that is increasingly falling apart. Also falling apart: the polar ice caps, which unleash ancient beasts called aurochs that kill each other, trample all in their path, and are headed straight for the Bathtub. Their home is full of dead plants and animals, inhospitable, yet the government desires to take them away and force them to conform to everyone else’s way of life. Hushpuppy goes on a journey, trying to cling to her community, her family, and her identity.
The film would be far simpler to digest if the viewer had never heard of Hurricane Katrina or the ensuing controversy. Then, it would play as a life-affirming father-daughter tale, embracing one’s community and strengthening one’s self against adversity. However, the blatant Katrina imagery forces the viewer to attempt to pick the proceedings apart for the message—who represents America? The government officials could represent the power of the country… but the Bathtub residents could stand for our country’s melting pot? Or does Wink, who doesn’t seem to care but deeply does? Or does Hushpuppy, still learning how to respond and how to care for others? Or the aurochs, who devour their own with great power, not grasping the need for community? Is it a criticism? Is it affirming? It seems, at times, to be all of these things, and it varies from scene to scene… which, unfortunately, makes trying to wrap one’s arms around the symbolism a fairly impossible task.
The government tries to save the Bathtub residents and give them amenities and medicine, but they break out of the facility, returning to the Bathtub in triumph. Much has been made of this sequence by critics, stating the filmmakers, perhaps inadvertently, are projecting a message that FEMA should have just left New Orleans alone because that’s “what they wanted.” While the scene is undoubtedly full of complicated emotions, I never read that these people thought they were better off in their ruined homes—it read that they were better off with each other and with their identities. The government tried to force Hushpuppy to wear dresses and comb her hair, and they tried to force one character to take medicine to ease the pain of an illness that could cause death. By “escaping” this scenario, it’s a death sentence… yet it’s a choice to die surrounded by friends and family in a familiar environment. As they left the building, cheering, the characters may be glad with the choice they made, but in the audience, I knew this would cause further death and hardship. I never said to myself, “That’s right, government, and never come back!” Their intentions are clear and their resources are better. Because the audience’s perception of symbolism in the film is so scattered, and the “messages” if they exist are so complex, the tricky contemporary issues at play don’t have easy answers.
There is one answer that the film consistently provides, however: reach out to others, help others, and admit that we need others. Any complex feelings about symbolism or stereotypes I had were washed away every time the father-daughter story occupies the screen. Wallis is a first-time actress of considerable strength and screen presence for her age, but I left the film most impressed by Dwight Henry, a first-time actor (who’s actually a local baker!) who gives my favorite performance in any film to date as Wink. It’s strong, raw, physical, and deeply passionate. Every time he’s on screen, I was utterly bewitched. Their chemistry together is the stuff of cinema magic, one of the best father-daughter relationships I’ve seen in a movie in my lifetime. The community at large is lovingly depicted, given dimension in even the slightest of moments. The mother figures Hushpuppy encounters are also soulful from the first frame they come on—how did these casting directors find all of these first time actors with so much screen presence? The dialogue and voiceover are poetic, the cinematography is compelling, and the score is rapturous. How could you leave this film thinking the message is “the Ninth Ward wanted to be left alone”? At film’s end, Hushpuppy is shown surrounded by her community in her home, a vision of strength and family. Isolationism is the starting point of the film, and the story arc maps their journey towards expressions of care. While the shadows of real-life events may complicate larger symbolic interpretation, there’s no denying the power of the relationships in this film, built strong and built together. I can’t wait to see it again.