Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild


In yesterday’s interview with Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, he compared the film to a song. It has these verses and choruses, he said. While watching it, you key into these loud-quiet-loud progressions, with raw emotions flowing through, surging at times, then breaking out into these cathartic releases.

Certain ideas get cycled as Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) confronts the idea of annihilation. It’s not just the looming death of her father, Wink, that weighs heavy on her mind. There’s also the possible end of her bayou community, and the prospect of extinction for all living things.

Now, about two weeks after seeing the film, it makes sense to think of Beasts of the Southern Wild as a kind of song. Just like a strong hook, a boss lyric, a catchy melody — I can’t get it out of my head.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Rated: PG-13
Release Date: June 27, 2012 (limited)

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the cameras are hip-high, which helps us see the world through Hushpuppy’s eyes. Terry Gilliam used a similar tactic with Time Bandits, but Beasts is an animal far less fantastical. It has more in common with Gilliam’s Tideland since it’s all about a child’s view of the world. In this case, it’s a child dealing with the prospect of death, loneliness, and erosion everywhere she looks. Hushpuppy lives with her dad Wink (Dwight Henry) in The Bathtub, a bayou community that may one day get washed out to sea. She says in her narration, “In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re going to know that there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” It’s a nice sentiment, but those flood waters keep encroaching. Maybe she doesn’t really believe it; maybe, one day, she may stop believing it (but only maybe).

There are still touches of fantasy, and they mainly come in the form of the aurochs. They were these primitive cattle in ancient cave paintings, but in the film they’re these giant horned pigs — half something out of Where the Wild Things Are, the other half out of Princess Mononoke. Even though Beasts of the Southern Wild is low-budget, the glimpses we get of the aurochs are a remarkable testament to beauty of practical effects. (No CG, just creative use of pot-bellied pigs.) These aurochs are the ancient manifestation of death and change, thawed from their arctic sleep just as Wink’s health begins to fail and as a storm is about the change life in The Bathtub, possibly forever. The aurochs are coming for Hushpuppy too.

The imagery of Beasts of the Southern Wild is potent, and a reminder of all the horrible things that have happened to south Louisiana in the last decade. You can’t look at the flooded land without also thinking about Hurricane Katrina; you can’t look at water darkened and full of dead animals without thinking about the BP oil spill. But there’s a resiliency to the people. They want to help, they want to rebuild, they want to stubbornly persist in the face of futility, like trees whose roots are somewhere deeper than high winds and flood water can reach. That was one of the things that inspired Zeitlin to make the movie: why do people hunker down? Like Dave Eggers’s Hurricane Katrina novel Zeitoun, Beasts of the Southern Wild wants to understand why the idea of home is something worth holding on to even when your actual home may be washed away.

But my initial entry point for Beasts of the Southern Wild wasn’t the big ideas. Like a lot of songs, the film is supposed to be felt first rather than parsed first. There’s a great line in David Byrne’s self-interview for Stop Making Sense: “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.” Those chills you get when you’re moved by something are not an intellectual reaction — it’s something visceral you can intellectualize later.

Rather than making sense of the imagery and symbolism, this process of real-time meaning making should cease so you can just take in those sounds, that imagery, the performances as they come. Hushpuppy may wonder about the future and if she and her community will be remembered, and she may ponder the extinct beasts of the past and their menacing metaphorical weight, but life is always rushing along, dragging her with it. The idea, for the audience, is to keep up.

Seeing Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry on screen is a revelation. I opened the interview with Zeitlin citing a line about first novels having a sort of swagger about them; maybe it’s true of on-screen debuts as well. Wallis is like a live-action Miyazaki shojo heroine — curious, attuned with nature, brave, verging at the adult world. She has such a presence about her, and everything she does has the genuine kookiness of child with an active mind. She is a kid enthusiastic about life. As her father, Henry is all strength and love, though he has a sternness to him that might rankle people. He sometimes yells at Hushpuppy, he can be impatient with her, at one point he even slaps her hard in the face. I got a sense that it’s never out of an overt cruelty since it’s rooted in a concern for her well-being. Wink is making sure she can survive when he’s gone. Life’s different out in the bayou, and if you’re alone raising a daughter who’s like a force of nature, your parenting needs to be similarly elemental.

And then there’s The Bathtub itself. This community on the edge of the world looks like its been surviving for ages out there, peopled with odd folks and their little quirks. One character who stuck was a timid, almost Droopy Dog-like guy in glasses and a bowler hat. He maybe has five mumbled lines, three minutes of screen time total (if even that). But like a distinctive personality you see on the street, you wonder who that person is — again, like a song getting stuck in your head. Initially, some of the Bathtub residents seemed like extras out of Barfly, but they’re really just people in the area trying to live well in harsh places. It’s part shantytown and part Never Never Land; especially Never Never Land for Hushpuppy.

As to those accusations of racism and stereotypes that were brought up in the interview with Zeitlin yesterday, I assumed while watching the movie that those sorts of issues might arise. Taken out of the context of the film, Hushpuppy and Wink could be viewed as bad black stereotypes, noble savages (that phrase even came up while some film writers discussed the issue between interviews), or even the dreaded label “Magical Negroes.” There’s the squalor and poverty, the strictness that can be seen as straight-up abuse, the patois that can be taken for ignorance. The filmmakers are outsiders, white city folk even, to the bayou community; the character names could be viewed as something negative, as if pulled out of Song of the South. (Counter to that, the names wouldn’t seem too out of place in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God either.)

Context is key, though I don’t think it’s going to completely dissuade perceptions of racism. Hushpuppy and Wink are the main characters of the movie rather than secondary characters assisting white protagonists. At least that rules out the Magical Negro idea since Wink and Hushpuppy exist as their own characters rather than expedients for other characters. As for them affirming negative black stereotypes, it seems like they simply live the way the rest of their racially diverse community lives. Earthiness is a cultural mark of The Bathtub. All that said, I’m curious to see what will happen with this discussion of race as the film gets out to audiences. Talking to a friend of a friend a few weeks ago about the show Girls, he wondered if there was too much criticism these days, and if this intense level of scrutiny was the result. (I still haven’t seen Girls, but I could read a whole ton about it if I wanted to.)

I think the one thing you could legitimately pin on Beasts of the Southern Wild is a kind of naive celebration of primitivism. The characters of The Bathtub are skeptical of technology and the way things are done outside. It’s a utopian Luddite wonderland of crab and crawfish dinners (a supplement to the occasional bowl of stewed cat food) and skies alight with fireworks (to keep your mind off the mosquitoes). It’s like unstoppable bits of Gummo peeking out through the film’s idyllic veneer, sort of like the flecks of rust or the curling, peeling paint that’s everywhere in the movie.

Even then, this may have something to do with Hushpuppy’s point of view. She’s only six and she’s loved the way she’s lived; living differently can seem frightening or strange. The film’s primitivism might be a thematic tool, an attempt to hold on to dying traditions, like natural medicine and folk cures. Viewed that way, it’s about a refusal to assimilate; it’s about maintaining a culture. But again, the water, it’s always creeping.

I wouldn’t want to live the way they live in The Bathtub, but I’ve never had to. If Hushpuppy were older, maybe she’d move away or notice the grime of her youth, but only maybe. That’s the thing about home: it’s who you are. There’s a fondness for your roots you can’t quite sever. This is the world that made Hushpuppy, and Hushpuppy loves the world.

While Beasts of the Southern Wild has a raucous and straightforward plot, what really pulls you along is that emotional sweep. You get hooked by its rhythms and its melodies. The film’s score (composed by Zeitlin and Dan Romer) has a similar infectious swell to it — it’s all building to something like the pop and hiss of Roman candles going off in the backyard. The score takes a humble melody and blows it up into something grand in scale, the same way a child’a imagination can magnify small things into major concerns. The specter of death — death of a father, death of a family, death of a home — maybe it’s the end of the world. (But only.)

One song that I think shares some DNA with Beasts of the Southern Wild is “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads. It has that childlike feel to it, and the lyrics suggest themes and moments in the film. I wonder if Zeitlin or co-writer Lucy Alibar had that song somewhere in mind as they made this movie. Home is where I want to be. Burn with a weak heart. Feet on the ground, head in the sky. Never for money, always for love. I’m just an animal looking for a home. Share the same space for a minute or two. Love me till my heart stops. Love me till I’m dead.

And the way the song ends is like the film at its highest points. It’s a bestial cry, filling up the silence and the loneliness with sound; just like a coyote call to the other animals out there, a show of strength, a declaration of life: Awoooooooo, ooooo-oo-ooooo!

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.