Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writers: Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar
Stars: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
In a hidden-in-full-view delta community called the Bathtub separated from civilization by a levee somewhere in the South, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy scrambles through swampland and piles of junk in pink underpants and white rubber boots where she lives with her father. Oblivious to danger and endowed with an extraordinary imagination, Hushpuppy talks to her drawings and shares her thoughts about a balance of nature within which she believes she lives. A fierce storm – no doubt inspired by Katrina – drastically changes her reality. Her father refuses to leave the shack he calls home in spite of catastrophic damage in the delta and a personal affliction that promises to kill him. Prehistoric beasts rampage Hushpuppy’s fantasies. Faced with inner and outer forces beyond her control, she attempts to repair the loss of balance in the universe by pitting her spirit against the elements.
I found Beasts of the Southern Wild simultaneously engaging and incredulous. If I let myself, I could put myself in place of this child making her way through a world of disasters as if it were normal. That is, I could remember when, as a child, I accepted the world in which I grew up as normal and did the best I could with it. There was, of course, lots in my life that wasn’t ‘normal’ and the fear that I lived with as a child did escalate into a fear that often made situations more threatening than they were. As Samuel Clemens said, “I dealt with more crises than actually existed.” So when six-year-old Hushpuppy’s fears grow into a nightmare of prehistoric beasts pounding through her psyche, I understood. But when I stepped back I couldn’t believe this child’s survival depended on her overcoming her own fears.
Faced with a storm the likes of Katrina flooding her homeland below the levy, killing food sources and contaminating more than she could grasp, she blamed herself for her world falling apart and made efforts to repair it. I have to believe that true, real and elemental threatening forces are, most likely, going to take her life before she has much time to live it. She’s only six and already her mother’s disappeared. Adults in her world can barely care for themselves much less a child. Angry with her beloved father who disappears without warning and returns without apology, she nearly blows herself up. When she gets cut by a bottom-feeding catfish while trying to bludgeon it to death to eat for food, no mention is made of antiseptic. Life threatening dangers are an every day occurrence for Hushpuppy. Her one source of protection – her alcoholic, hard-headed ignorant father — is dying and does die before the film ends leaving her singularly on her own. No one steps forward to offer an arm. For sure, no one offers safe passage. I couldn’t imagine one even though at the end she walks toward us, away from the dead end of a pier surrounded by flood waters.
I felt Hushpuppy was an apt name for a wild child likely to be consumed before fulfilling the promise of the filmmakers’ imagination to become a ‘heroine’ putting the world back together for herself and the rest of us. I walked out of the theater shaking my head, admiring the filmmakers for taking on the story of a child up against elemental forces and inviting us to hope we’re not leaving our children a world beyond their means to survive. However, in spite of Hushpuppy’s abiding optimism, the filmmakers’ courage to challenge the dregs of Katrina’s wake with a hopeful vision — as well as my own enthusiasm for girls as new heroes for a new age — left me feeling bleak. I cannot, in good faith, regard this child’s survival with joy when I think we, as viewers of her life, should despair that a child in our country is growing up as she has — and presumably is.
That said, I did get an unexpected insight into the motivation behind the ancient cave paintings I’ve viewed in Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain. Everyone is enthralled by these paintings. They exhibit sophisticated drawing skill, three-dimensional perspective and creative interpretation of animals and events that tell much about humankind living 40,000 years ago. But everyone wonders why the animals were painted. What motivated men to go deep into caves and lie on their backs for hours drawing bulls, horses and other animals by torchlight?Beasts provides a possible answer. The painters may have been trying to take the power of these animals into themselves, to transform their fear of the beasts they had to kill and eat to survive by drawing them, bringing them to life within themselves. By capturing their images, they could make their fear work for them. The cave drawings suggest a connection between the feeling the beast aroused and the power of the beast itself. Man and beast integrally connected by an imaginative act of creation. The drawn animal was not symbolic, not a representation but an actual embodiment of a felt fusion of strength.
James Hillman, an eminent archetypal psychologist, believed that dreaming an animal was more than symbolic. He believed a dream animal must be taken as real, as real as any animal existing in the outside world. To dream an animal is to encounter its characteristics as part of one’s own psyche. To describe, draw and capture an animal in detail would be to enliven elemental forces and connect with an animal’s being as part of one’s own being. When Hushpuppy scratches charcoal creatures on the inside of a cardboard box, there’s a likeness to the cave dwellers. Perhaps she’s literally merging with the primordial beast’s fierce anger and drawing forth survival instincts. Her drawing a face above a cherished tee shirt saved from her mother and talking to it as a parental force, alive in the waters of the Bathtub in which she lives, is one of the most touching scenes in the film.
To be sure, the film’s young protagonist, who survives within the natural ebb and flow of environmental elements, stretched my imagination. Hushpuppy fused the storm with her fantasies of the beasts. She fused the catfish with her father; she thought she’d killed her father when she pounded his chest as she had the catfish. She fused the waters of the delta with the waters where her mother resided. Her fusion of the realities of everyday life, the realities of her emotions and the realities of the larger natural elements imbue her with a special sense of power that works for her. And it may well have worked for cave dwellers 40,000 years ago. Unbelievable as real, Beasts of the Southern Wildstands proud and profound as a dream of imaginative achievement that furthers mankind.
We’re all still here, aren’t we?