Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
As it begins, one thinks “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is about deprivation but it’s actually about defiance and celebration. One thinks, “How sad that people have to live like that,” when they battle everything—governmental agencies, sickness, global warming, and, yes, prehistoric beasts unleashed by global warming—to keep living like that. This is our home, they’re saying. We shall not be moved.
Me? I’d move in a second. All that garbage and mud? Those shacks? That sickness and drunken nothingness? As a result, I was at odds with the movie’s emotional core. I’m way too fastidious. I wanted to flee the very place they embraced.
The heart of the movie is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a fierce, independent, six-year-old girl living on the wrong side of the levee in a bayou about to be swept away by global warming; but she is inculcated by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), to keep living there. At one point Wink takes Hushpuppy out in a homemade boat, patched together from what others have thrown away, and they gaze at factories and smokestacks on the other side of the levee. They’re outsiders but not envious. “Ain’t that ugly over there,” he says, adding, “We got the prettiest place on Earth.”
Left unspoken is the fact that those ugly factories and smoke stacks are contributing to the global warming that’s about to wash away their home, which is the prettiest place on Earth.
We get their story by and by. Writer-director Benh Zeitlin tells us little, shows us more. Here’s Hushpuppy, walking around in white rubber boots, and listening to the heartbeats of the animals they keep in their ramshackle home. Here’s Wink, drinking and talking with neighbors about a storm coming and waters rising. Here’s another harsh lesson from Wink to Hushpuppy: “Every animal is made out of meat,” he says. “I’m meat. Y’all ass is meat.” Hushpuppy tries to make sense of this. She tries to balance sympathy and survival. She knows, without the protections she’s had from her father, “I wouldn’t even be Hushpuppy. I’d just be breakfast.”
Then Wink disappears. Has he fled? Has he been killed or incarcerated? When he shows up again, angry and stumbling, he’s in a blue hospital gown with a plastic ID bracelet around his wrist. He’s sick but doesn’t want their cure. He doesn’t want Hushpuppy’s help. The fierce independence he drums into her—that he feels she needs to survive—comes from him. “Who’s the man!” he yells at her at one point. “I’m the man!” she shouts back.
When the storms come, and Hushpuppy is scared, Wink goes outside to rage against it—to show her there’s nothing to be scared of. The waters rise. Some survive. Against the instincts of a maternal teacher in the bayou, Wink and others, using an alligator stuffed with dynamite, lead a nighttime assault that blows up a portion of the levee. The waters recede. We see the residents sort through what’s left. We see Hushpuppy find medicine for her father, which she dribbles onto his mouth while he’s sick and sleeping. Then the authorities come and suddenly we’re in a clean hospital. Hushpuppy is wearing a little blue dress and her beautiful wild hair is tamed. “It didn’t look like a prison,” she says in voiceover. “It looked like a fish tank with no water.” Prison or not, they still need to break out, and do. They still need to make their way back home.
Early on, from the maternal teacher, we hear a story of prehistoric beasts called aurochs, and as the polar ice cap melts we see these beasts, looking like giant warthogs, trapped in the ice, then free and roaming, and snuffling, and thundering closer and closer. At first I thought it was a metaphor for all the bad shit going down and coming down. It’s not. As Hushpuppy and three other girls make their way back to the bayou, the thundering gets louder, they look behind them, scream and run. All but Hushpuppy. She stands her ground. She faces down these beasts, to whom she knows she’s breakfast, and tells them, in essence, she’s Hushpuppy, daughter of Wink, and will not be moved. It’s a great scene: this tiny fierce face against this vast monstrosity. You can still call it a metaphor—it certainly works as a metaphor—but it’s most obviously wish fulfillment: ours and Wink’s. It’s also the film’s climax: Wink’s work is done. He can die now, knowing Hushpuppy can survive without him.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” arrived in Seattle with a kind of thunder of its own, Manohla Dargis’, who declared in The New York Times that the film was “among the best films to play at Sundance in two decades.” I went in hoping to be blown away. I wasn’t.
Quvenzhané Wallis is stunning and should hear Oscar talk. Dwight Henry is good. The filmmakers mix elements of both Katrina and global warming into a “We shall not be moved” ethos. But I wasn’t moved. I wanted the movie to crack me open, like a levee, but it didn’t. I remained an outsider. I looked at the muddy, ramshackle place they loved, the prettiest place on earth, and thought, “Ain’t that ugly over there.”