Beasts of the Southern Wild

This review contains spoilers.

This film has been much talked about lately, among friends and film-goers I respect. I finally got around to watching it a few weeks ago, and absolutely loved it. Definitely one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (directed by Benh Zeitlin) is set on the “Isle de Charles Doucet”: a fictional island nicknamed “the Bathtub” by its residents. The Bathtub, a setting inspired by several real Louisiana communities, is on the wrong side of a levee and is under serious threat from rising sea levels.

There are three things I really love about this film. The first is its protagonist, Hush Puppy. Hush Puppy (played by Quvenzhane Wallis) is a six-year-old girl living in the Bathtub with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Life is not easy for Hush Puppy: she is without a mother (Wink tells Hush Puppy that when she was born her mother’s heart beat so hard she was afraid it would burst, and so she swam away), living in a place with wild and dangerous weather, and a father who loves her but who is slowly dying. The way Hush Puppy faces these challenges makes her one of the most engaging and sympathetic characters I’ve seen on film. She is intelligent, caring, and incredibly strong. She screams and shows off her “guns”, but also strokes animals and takes care of those “younger and sweeter” than herself. The courage demonstrated by this little girl is awe-inspiring, and left me feeling ashamed of my own weakness (living, as I do, in a place that is relatively safe and dry).

The second thing that makes this film so wonderful is its setting. The Bathtub is rich with life. The lush green bayou forest is teeming with alligators, crabs, crawdaddies (crayfish), barracudas, pigs, chickens, and dogs. And then there are the people – an eclectic collection, carefree, loving, and full of feeling. They have their flaws – drinking too much perhaps being the biggest one – but they are good, brave, caring people. A community, determined to stick by their slowly sinking home. Hush Puppy’s teacher, Mrs Bathsheba (played by Gina Montana) was my favourite ‘minor’ character: caring and tough at the same time – a realist, but able to laugh and drink with the rest of them.

Perhaps most striking thing about Beasts of the Southern Wild, however, is the way in which Hush Puppy’s imagination is realised. We see a storm coming, and then suddenly a shot of crumbling icebergs. The film gives us full force exactly what Hush Puppy sees in her mind’s eye. We are totally immersed in her perspective. These are the tools a film has – sight, sound, choice of perspective. And Beasts of the Southern Wild uses all of them so well. Hush Puppy also imagines the Aurochs. We first learn of the Aurochs from Mrs Bathsheba, when she shows the children a tattoo on her upper thigh. As bayou legend has it, the Aurochs were monstrous boar-like beasts that used to terrorise and eat people. But, Mrs Bathsheba says, the people didn’t just lie down and take it. They fought back.

As the water rises and her father gets sicker Hush Puppy imagines the Aurochs coming closer. They pound their way across the land towards her, enormous and terrifying, so horrible that they even feast on their own kind. They are the beasts of the southern wild, strong and intimidating. But so is Hush Puppy. She is brave, and she is going to fight back. When the Aurochs do finally reach her (at her father’s deathbed) she stands up, and they back off. Hush Puppy is able to face her biggest fear: her father dying, and the Aurochs let her return to be by his side.

This film had me in tears by the end. The girl I loved so much, her strength, and her relationship with these giant beasts, was emotionally overwhelming. Ultimately a happy ending for Hush Puppy, but so heart wrenching. What a beautiful, beautiful film.

Beasts of the Southern Wild was released in 2012. The screenplay was adapted from Lucy Alibar’s one-act-play Juicy and Delicious. The film won the 2012 Camera d’Or award at Cannes.

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