Beasts of the Southern Wild – 2012
This was a very well-made film. It was a depressing drama that sported an air of hope. It is described as having an element of fantasy, but I disagree. If it had truly been in that genre, it would have tried to imply that the supernatural elements were real. But I think it was clear that they were all contained within the imagination of the film’s main protagonist, Hushpuppy, a six year old girl, played by Quvenzhané Wallis.
The story is a sad and dramatic one. Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, played by another first-time actor, Dwight Henry, live in an area of a Southern Louisiana bayou community known as the Bathtub. The area is prone to danger from hurricanes and flooding. They live in extreme poverty and squalor which is nothing more than a glorified garbage heap. Wink is an alcoholic whose wife left him years earlier, though it is never made clear why she is gone.
Wink loves Hushpuppy very much, though he is sometimes physically abusive to her. He is a fisherman who owns a boat made out of the back half of a pickup truck. He tells his daughter that they live in the best and most beautiful place in the world, and like the child that she is, she believes him. The filthy living conditions are all she knows, and so she is, for the most part, happy, though it becomes clear that Wink is afflicted with some kind of serious blood or heart condition. But it is all just set-up for the real story.
A great storm comes which destroys the community. Rather than flee their homes, Wink and Hushpuppy stay to weather the gale. When the storm is over, they get in their boat and take to the flooded streets, looking for survivors. They find Jean Battiste, played by Levy Easterly, Miss Bathsheba, the local schoolteacher, played by Gina Montana, and Walrus, played by Lowell Landes. Together, the rag-tag group tries to rebuild their homes and their lives.
But it is a hopeless endeavor. The salt-water surge from the storm has contaminated the fresh water supply and both the livestock and vegetation start to die. To solve the problem, Wink and Jean Battiste blow up a levee, which drains the flood, but brings them to the attention of the mainlanders. They are quickly rounded up and forced into a shelter. Hushpuppy has never been in such clean surroundings. She is afraid and feels like she is in a prison.
And here is the real tragedy of the story. Hushpuppy grew up in garbage, poverty, and squalor. There are actually people who live in such terrible conditions, and the fact that the residents of the Bathtub escape the shelter as quickly as they can to get back to the dump they call home is all too believable. So Hushpuppy will never know that there is a better, healthier, and more sanitary way to live. I find that even sadder than the film’s actual climax, in which Wink dies of his blood poisoning.
The pseudo-fantasy element of the film takes the form of giant, man-eating, horned pigs which, through the teachings of Miss Bathsheba, manifest in Hushpuppy’s imagination as a metaphor for tragedy or the end of the world, or maybe eventually, her father’s death. They are shown as coming after Hushpuppy throughout the film, getting closer each time we see them. When they finally catch up with her, she confronts them and they submit to her. Then she has the courage to face her father’s failing health.
The entire cast did a good job, but Quvenzhané Wallis really stood out as a fantastic little actress. She seemed to have two things the character needed to work. She had fire, and she had innocence. Wallis really surprised me and I was impressed. She was the youngest person to ever be nominated for the Best Actress award. She had strength and fierceness, and the capacity for unfettered joy that made her completely endearing.
And there were also some tender moments that showed yet another facet of her character. There was a sub-plot that involved Hushpuppy’s search for her mother. After their escape from the shelter, she and her friends swim out to a floating brothel called the Elysian Fields. While there, she befriends a cook named Joy Strong who may or may not have been her mother, played by Jonshel Alexander. She invites Hushpuppy to stay with her, but the girl knows she must return home to her dying father. It was a little out of left field, but sweet.
Overall, even though director Benh Zeitlin made the odd choice of purposefully making a lot of the hand-held camera-work that ended up on the screen out of focus, giving the film a vaguely disorienting feel, the movie had a good story, and some good acting. I just question the film’s moral message. Behind all the film’s dramatic trappings, it said that home is where the heart is. But I find it a hard sentiment to embrace when home is a trash dump. I guess when you have so little, it is hard to let go of what you have.