Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

It’s undeniable that Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance-winning debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a hypnotic and dazzling piece of filmmaking. In particular, I have no problem singling out five year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’s stunning performance as Hushpuppy, whose story this is and whose subjectivity it radically tries to represent.

But the film also made me reflect on some troubling aspects of modernity and the contemporary American relationship to eschatology, as the setting of the film seems to be a place being torn apart by both nature and the outside world. Can the centre hold through Hushpuppy’s tenacity or is it hopeless?

Wallis, who at age 5 had to lie about her age to be considered for the role, embodies Hushpuppy with a physicality and presence that seems shocking for her age. She obliquely comments on the events of the film with enigmatic statements (“The whole world depends on everything fitting together just right.”), but rarely do they directly illuminate the events; they are contrapuntal, working in dissonance. The voice-over combined with the frequent cutaways to nature, seems to be consciously aping the work of Terrence Malick, particularly Linda Manz’s voice-over in Days of Heaven (another American fairy tale grounded in the natural theology of Emerson and Whitman). The comparison is fair to a point, but Zeitlin’s imagined world is both rougher and more immanent than Malick’s, which aims to illuminate the transcendent in nature.

Hushpuppy lives in the Bathtub, a Southern Louisiana community nestled in the swamp flats on the other side of the levee from giant oil refineries. She lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) after her mother left them for reasons unknown. Wink is prone to violent drunken fits and appears to be suffering from a serious ailment. Thus, Hushpuppy often has to survive on her own, listening to the heartbeats of the animals around her and cooking her own food with a blowtorch and gas stove. The Bathtub’s residents offer her some limited education (she learns about the melting polar icecaps which threaten her home with rising sea levels) and some support, but mostly they like to drink and set off fireworks, as they do in an exhilarating pre-credits scene.

Zeitlin’s shaky camera seems to function primarily as an ethnographic tool, attempting a kind of naturalist belief in the camera’s ability to investigate foreign subjectivities. We get a fleeting glimpse of the community’s official name scrawled over with the residents preferred nomenclature, “The Bathtub”, emphasizing how they have taken ownership of their home. Wink criticizes the “ugly” refineries next door and the concrete levee that keeps the water out. It’s hard not to sympathize with him. Despite the rough edges, Zeitlin clearly wants us to view the Bathtub with the same fondness as the residents. Their enthusiasm for their home is one of the film’s core themes, and seems to fit with what I have heard about the unique culture of Southern Louisiana. A friend who recently visited New Orleans told me about people he met who had never left their city and who could not comprehend why anyone would want to. To them, it was the best place in the world and so is the Bathtub for its residents.

But, eventually a storm comes to the Bathtub and the waters rise. Hushpuppy seems to be aware of the threatening approach of the “Aurochs”, prehistoric beasts released from the melting ice and rampaging toward the Bathtub. Realized by real farm beasts in elaborate dress, the Aurochs are an impressive special effect in the film, while adhering to the films stressing of “realism”. However, it is a literal storm, with strong echoes of Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters, including the BP oil spill, that have plagued the American south in recent years, which becomes the main narrative thread. The aftermath brings a team of aid workers who seek to help, but who instead are seen by the Bathtub residents as threatening them with a move to Des Moines and permanently disrupting their way of life.

Katrina challenged American conceptions about their own ability to withstand natural disasters and their unique status as a first world power, as it transformed the coast of Louisiana into all but a third world disaster zone; America thought it was immune to this. I’m not sure the storm in question is literally meant to be Katrina, but it speaks to the way that the storm has entered the imaginative consciousness of American culture. What is particularly challenging about Zeitlin’s film is not how it “reveals the truth” about the South or Hurricane Katrina, but how those things are linked related concepts that threaten America’s conception of itself, such as colonialism and regionalism. Beasts of the Southern Wild challenges viewers to think about the value of local cultures and what an appropriate response to a disaster is.

America as a national concept has struggled with how it joins together various groups with different interests, lifestyles, and very different social problems and conventions. Responses to Beasts of the Southern Wild that see it as a kind of “poverty fetishization” and accuse it of vilifying of the aid workers, seem to me to possibly falling prey to the very “imperial gaze” that they accuse Zeitlin of representing. The truth is that we may not approve of the way that the residents of the Bathtub live. In fact, I found Hushpuppy’s relationship with Wink is physically abuse at times and that greatly troubled me.

But at the same time, the film deconstructs the notion that in order to save these people we must convert them to our way of life. What is frightening about the rescue team scenes is not that their help is interfering with the Bathtub’s good times (which are problematic, but not for the reasons one might think), but that their idea of doing good is so tied up with the centrality of their non-Bathtub perspective. Where were they before the storm? How have their actions contributed to the creation of the situation? The mainstream American eschatology is often ecstatic about disasters because there is the belief that in the aftermath the “healed” land will reform the alien into the familiar. It is uneasy with a view of paradise that is about drinking beer and consuming battered alligator. Thus, natural disasters tend to function as a kind of opportunity to flatten differences. An eschatological reading of the film makes the so-called “magic realist” elements of the film all the more palatable, as even the storm is functioning in a different way from classical narrative (it is not about “man vs. nature here).

What is ultimately fascinating about Beasts of the Southern Wild is the way that it stresses one resilient child’s subjectivity, one shaped by vastly different reference points than most in the audience for the film. Admittedly, the film is not always entirely successful; accusations that the Bathtub residents are too weakly sketched out for us to believe in them as a functioning community do hit home at times. But Hushpuppy’s age is as significant as her regional upbringing. Zeitlin has crafted a film that offers a feast for the senses, but leaves me with a lingering sense of uneasiness. And I think that is a good thing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Directed by Benh Zeitlin; written by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar; starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry.

8 out of 10