132. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

“…unique perspectives and self-sufficient lifestyles are sacred things that should be fought for and preserved. So-called ‘eccentrics’ were my earliest heroes, and one of my biggest influences.”–Benh Zeitlin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Benh Zeitlin

FEATURING: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry

PLOT: Six-year old Hushpuppy lives with her ailing father Wink in “the Bathtub,” a community that turns into an island isolated from society when floodwaters cut it off from the mainland. After a second flood nearly destroys the Bathtub, Wink decides that he must destroy the levee so that the water will recede. This plan brings the attention of the authorities, however, who forcibly evacuate the defiant pair from their ramshackle home, all while Wink’s health is getting worse…

Still from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
BACKGROUND:

  • Beasts of the Southern Wild was adapted from the play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar (who also collaborated on the movie screenplay). The action was moved from Georgia to Louisiana, and Hushpuppy’s character was altered to fit the personality of actress Quvenzhané Wallis.
  • Hushpuppy was originally conceived of as 9-12 years old, but Quvenzhané Wallis was so perfect for the role that the character’s age was changed. Wallis beat out a reported 4,000 other kids for the role. She was only five when she first auditioned and, since the minimum age to be considered was six, her mother lied about her age.
  • Dwight Henry (Wink) is a New Orleans baker; this was his first acting role. He originally turned down the role in order to focus on opening a new bakery.
  • The aurochs in the movie are actually pot-bellied pigs with horns glued on.
  • Won the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes (given to the best first film screened at the festival).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hushpuppy coming face to face with the apocalyptic aurochs of her imagination.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Quvenzhané Wallis’ childish explanation, “once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub” turns out to be a literal description of the plot in this ridiculously original fairy tale that resembles The Tree of Life set in a post-apocalyptic bayou.


Original trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild

COMMENTS: Although many movies purport to view reality from a child’s perspective (including Curse of the Cat People, My Life as a Dog, and Pan’s Labyrinth, among others), none are as dedicated to understanding the world through six-year old sensibilities as Beasts of the Southern Wild. Beasts finds its heroine at an age where she’s just learning to distinguish reality from fantasy, but where she still believes that she can hear the secret languages of baby chicks when she holds them to her ear. When a Bathtub teacher tells a story about the prehistoric Aurochs who ate cave babies, these monsters become real creatures to the confused girl, as the various lessons rambling about in her young mind coalesce into a story about global warming thawing out the beasts. Other childhood movies break from the kid’s perspective and pull back for a third person objective view of events, for example by depicting conversations where no children are present, to help adults orient themselves in reality. Not so with Beasts, where everything we know is seen through Hushpuppy’s wide eyes. Even the camera remains at a height of about four feet; like Hushpuppy we’re always looking upwards at the imposing faces of grown-ups.

Helping to place us in Hushpuppy’s awestruck shoes is the fact that the Bathtub is as strange to us as it is to her; stranger, actually, because we have expectations about how people should behave and the girl doesn’t. The Bathtub is an island cut off from the Louisiana mainland by flooding. Its remaining residents, the ones who refused orders to evacuate to the mainland, exist in a sunny, waterlogged junkyard of a town, and have reverted to tribalism. They live off the land, drink and celebrate all day, and raise their children to beware the coming deluge. The self-appointed teacher who warns the Bathtub’s children of the aurochs has cave paintings tattooed on her meaty thigh. Hushpuppy even has her own house, a trailer perched on oil drums and cluttered with toys, clothes, and Christmas lights. There, she fries up cat food for her dinner, lighting the gas stove with a blowtorch, and carries on imaginary conversations with her absent mother, represented by a Michael Jordan jersey with sunglasses clipped to the neckline. The Bathtub is a world apart, wondrous and scary and often scarcely believable, a world as strange to us as ours is when seen through the eyes of a child.

As a child, one with an active imagination, Hushpuppy is an unreliable narrator. The Bathtub is a strange place, but just barely credible. The last third of the movie, however, is almost pure fantasy. When the girl and her father are briefly captured and forcibly brought to civilization, the tale becomes increasingly improbable. Taken to an evacuation center that reminds her of a fishbowl, Hushpuppy is groomed for foster care; her untamed locks are bound up into a bun, and the boys’ underwear she was accustomed to wear is thrown out and she’s stuffed into a frilly dress. Her father, whose leukemia has progressed to the point of no return, is forced into a hospital bed and “plugged into the wall.” It seems a likely end to the story, an unwanted rescue that closes an unhappy chapter in a young girl’s life, a childhood trauma that will be forgotten as she grows up in foster care. Instead of ending here, however, Hushpuppy and Wink and the rest of the tribe make an improbable escape from the shelter. Two stories, two outcomes—one full of the harsh realities of death and abandonment, one of the girl’s desire to return to the life she’s always known with her father—start to coexist at the same time. Hushpuppy and the Bathtub’s children swim out to sea where, in one of the strangest and most moving wish-fulfillment dreams ever filmed, they come to a mystical floating catfish shack that also serves as a brothel where the courtesans act as mothers for orphaned children. In the meantime, the thawed aurochs march south, cannibalizing their dead along the way, inexorably making their way towards their ultimate prey—Hushpuppy.

Where could Hushpuppy have acquired the image of juke joint ladies lined-up in lingerie awaiting clients to create her bordello fantasy? It’s never explained; either this fantasy bordello has an independent existence apart from Hushpuppy’s experience, or that the girl has been places and seen things we haven’t been told about. All of the details of her life—the idea that she actually lived in her own house, the Biblical storms and floods, even the existence of the Bathtub itself—are suspect, due to her inability to untangle what exists inside and outside her head. What is never suspect is the emotional core of the movie, the unquestionably real relationship between Hushpuppy and her father. Wink is a terrible father, usually drunk and too sick to be of much use when sober. He hits the little girl. Yet, he clearly loves her. He teaches her to catch catfish so she can feed herself after he dies, and demands she crack open a crab’s shell using only her bare hands. He treats her like a boy, since in his mind that is the only way she can be tough enough to go it alone (one of the movie’s unforgettable moments is when Wink goads Hushpuppy into flex her biceps and screaming, “I’m the man!”) The Bathtub is a fantastic milieu, but Hushpuppy’s experience of growing up with a loving but flawed single parent doomed to abandon her is, sadly, all too real. She could have lived in any poor area—the Bathtub, the Ninth Ward, Appalachia—and the story would be the same. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a tale of survival, defiance, the way imperfect love imparts strength.

Most of the talk about Beasts rightfully centers on Quvenzhané Wallis, who is repeatedly referred to by critics as “a force of nature.” With her wild, brambly head of hair and angry stare that could stop a rampaging auroch in his tracks, you can see how this metaphor arises. Wallis is forceful and mesmerizing onscreen, but she’s also a genuine little girl, cute and vulnerable, and believable in the midst of unbelievable circumstances. Her mixture of lovability and inner toughness embodies everything we hope for in children. Zeitlin’s best move was to build the movie around this tiny dynamo’s strengths and personality. It’s almost a shame that Wallis’ performance overshadows Dwight Henry, also an amateur, who takes on a far less sympathetic role as the macho, drunken Wink. Wallis and Henry are raw actors, and arguably it’s their amateur backgrounds that made them the perfect fit for a movie about outsiders. There is little Hollywood flavor in Beasts, a gritty gumbo of a movie that mixes bitter reality with pungent fantasy. If most Oscar contenders are like lobster dinners where the actors keep their elbows off the table, Beasts is like sucking on crawfish heads.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…too unique and too defiantly strange to survive for long in today’s Darwinian and consumerist exhibition environment… Weird, resonant and moving…”–Ray Green, Boxoffice (contemporaneous)

 “…a trippy travelogue… transports us to places that are peculiar and dangerous and magical, and makes us feel weirdly at home.”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

“…a hallucinatory work of art that has trouble interpreting its own dreams or realizing what its magical realism actually reveals.”–Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: Beasts of the Southern Wild | Get Involved – The trailer, news, soundtrack information, and a Beasts blog

Fox Searchlight – Beasts of the Southern Wild – The distributor’s site links to Beasts related news

IMDB LINK: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

How Benh Zeitlin Made Beasts of the Southern Wild – Extensive background on Zeitlin and the film, written by the Smithsonian to commemorate an American Ingenuity Award given to the director

Deleted Scenes from Beasts of the Southern Wild – Excerpts from behind-the-scenes and deleted scenes featurettes

Quvenzhané. A small force of nature – Roger Ebert’s interview with Wallis (video with transcript)

Quvenzhane Wallis rides the wake of ‘Beasts’ – The Los Angeles Times’ profile of the young star

Lucy Alibar: From Broke to Phenomenon – Profile of Beasts‘ co-writer by Elle magazine

Glory at Sea – Zeitlin’s 25-minute 2008 short film about Katrina survivors on a boat shares many stylistic and thematic similarities with Beasts

The Real Bathtub: Back To The Bayou With ‘Beasts Of The Southern Wild’ – Indiewire article exploring the Terrebonne bayou region where Beasts was shot

No Love in the Wild – Social commentator bell hooks accuses the movie of promoting racism, sexism and “the pornography of violence”

List Candidate: Beasts of the Southern Wild – Alex Kittle’s original assessment of Beasts for 366 Weird Movies during its theatrical run

DVD INFO: The Fox Searchlight DVD (buy) includes a “Making Of” featurette and the trailer. The Blu-ray release (buy) offers additional special features, including deleted scenes with commentary by Zeitlin, Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry’s audition videos, the short film Glory at Sea, and featurettes entitled “The Music” and “The Aurochs.” The film is also available digitally for rental or purchase (download or rent).

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