Buffet of the Universe:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
I simply love this film. I’ve seen it twice now and have no doubt that a third viewing will yield up even more surprises. It is called Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it is directed by first-timer Benh Zeitlin. The script is by Lucy Alber and Zeitlin, based on Alber’s one-act play called ‘Juicy and Delicious.’ The haunting music is by Dan Romer and again, Zeitlin. Don’t mind that the director’s name appears so often though. The credits make it clear that this is very much a communal effort from a group of quite astonishing, accomplished and confident amateurs.
In years to come I believe whole-heartedly that Beasts will be discussed and analyzed along with other great classics that portray a particular world from a child’s point of view. I’m thinking of such undoubted masterpieces as Night of the Hunter, Whistle down the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird or perhaps the greatest of them all, The Spirit of the Beehive. Or yes—and sorry to disappoint all you film snobs out there—Spielberg’s E. T. The Extra-terrestrial.
It is set in an isolated bayou community in the Delta area of Louisiana, nicknamed by the locals as the Bathtub, which has been further cut off from the outside world by the building of a levee. We see the small group of neighbours through the eyes and narration of a precocious and imaginative little girl called Hushpuppy. She lives in one building where she keeps all of her vanished mother’s belongings and continues an ongoing imaginary conversation with her; her father, Wink, seems mainly to occupy a nearby ramshackle shack and calls her over when it is time to eat. He is a good father in his way and they love each other, but he drinks too much and it soon becomes obvious that he is ill in some unspecified manner.
One can only watch the six-year-old actress Quvenzhane Wallis in some kind of awe. Her face seems wise and timeless beyond her years. It is almost scary that a little girl can be this good at inhabiting another body. Now aged nine she has become the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Oscar.
Dwight Henry, who plays the father Wink, is also a revelation. I was amazed to discover afterwards that he wasn’t a professional actor but had instead been running the cafe where the crew—members of a company called Court 13– were eating.
“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right”, says Hushpuppy and these are words that the little girl lives by. To our eyes everything about the bayou looks rundown, with vehicles and even boats just about hanging together with a hope and a prayer; but the people are undoubtedly happy with their lot. An early scene where we see them partying sums this up nicely. Hushpuppy comments that the mainland folks only get one holiday a year but theirs are endless.
I’ve had work in St. Lucia in the Caribbean on several occasions and this sequence reminded me a little of two trips to Fish Fridays, where there was the same street partying feel: dancing, music, drink and endless varieties of fresh fish. Pure bliss.
At school though the teacher warns the children that things will change for them when the heavy rains come. She tells them that with the melting of the ice caps the whole of the Bathtub will be under water and they will have to learn to survive like the early cavemen. Hushpuppy fixates on her tales of massive beasts called Aurochs that are frozen in the ice from those days; and like the cavemen she is determined to leave her story in primitive etchings that she draws wherever she can. She wants “the scientists of the future” to know that she once lived here.
When the storm hits and it really does put the Bathtub under water and threatens the survival of all, she understands in a dim way that the whole ecology of the area has been upset. Due to a trivial incident, however, she thinks that she is to blame.
From this point we see her fellow dwellers trying to come to terms (often by being in denial) about surviving when the entire area is being evacuated. Hushpuppy has visions of the Aurochs being released from their ice tombs and lumbering through the land again. Or has her powerful imagination actually called these ancient animals back into existence?
On a boat which picks up several of the survivors she asks the captain where they are going to. He replies:
“It don’t matter, baby. This boat will take you exactly where you need to be. It’s that kind of boat.” And indeed she does seem to have called an old magic back into the world.
The film’s ending will be discussed by film enthusiasts for a long time to come: it is triumphant, hallucinatory, and enigmatic, almost in the nature of an epiphany; and finally approaching something that almost moves beyond real concerns and into the world of Myth. As Hushpuppy puts it in her own inimitable way:
“When it goes all quiet behind my eyes I see everything that made me. When I look too hard, it goes away. And when it all goes quiet I see they are right here. I see that I’m a little piece of a big, big universe. And that makes things right. When I die the scientists of the future, they’re gonna find it all. They’re gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy; and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautiful, beautiful film and a moving celebration of Life. I’m only sorry that no words of mine could do it justice. It has to be seen.