A huge commercial success in America, young director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film Beasts of the Southern Wild was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for drama at Sundance and the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. Adapted by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from Alibar’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious, the film follows the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl living on a fictional island off the coast of New Orleans, which is officially called the “Isle de Charles Doucet” but also known to its residents as “The Bathtub”.
In Beasts of the Southern Wild, we are thrown head-first into a poverty-stricken society that a contemporary western audience would likely to dismiss as simply socially deprived. The film’s central character, the six-year old Hushpuppy, seems to be being raised in a state of neglect. However, as the film progresses, the close bond between Hushpuppy and her often drunk and hot-tempered father Wink (Dwight Henry) is revealed. The bayou community of which they are a part is poor but also caring and supportive, and determined to preserve the lifestyle they know and love.
Filled with powerful images of the locality, nature, animals, and death, the cinematography of Beasts of the Southern Wild is amazing, horrifying, and moving. From the resonant heartbeats overlaid onto the film’s soundtrack to Hushpuppy’s high-pitched shriek, sound is also used inventively. While the general setting of unhygienic swamp land may be upsetting, it provides an effective backdrop for a story which should be violent and also upsetting.
The perspective of Beasts of the Southern Wild is largely that of Hushpuppy, and the film is therefore not for the faint-hearted. During the screening at the DCA, a young child left in tears. It seems heartbreaking, but upon leaving the cinema, I was actually smiling. There were several laugh-out–loud moments, particularly from Henry as Wink, as he tries to prepare Hushpuppy for a future without him. In one scene, he forces Hushpuppy to break open crabs with her bare hands. When she succeeds, they both jump on the table and scream in delight. Despite no prior acting experience, Henry performance is exceptional. There is also a rich seam of humour in Hushpuppy’s interior monologues and her quirky habit of trying to speak to and understand all the animals and plants she encounters. Quvenzhané Wallis gives a mature and skilled performance, one that is thoroughly believable despite her young age.
The narrative of Beasts of the Southern Wild is interesting in that it initially tricks the audience into stereotyping Hushpuppy’s life as one of social deprivation, unsanitary and chaotic, and pitying her. However, when “The Bathtub” sinks because of flooding, and the inhabitants are placed into Disaster Relief Centre, Hushpuppy and her friends are shown to be as uncomfortable in an environment we take to be “normal” as we would be in theirs. They fight to live in “The Bathtub”; it is what they want and what they are used to.
This powerful, eye-opening story teaches us that we should not judge a society that is different just because it is isn’t like ours. “The Bathtub” and its inhabitants are strong in the face of danger and the destructive forces of nature. Indeed, there are several scenes of giant mythical aurochs crashing through the forest, and towards the end, chasing Hushpuppy. At the end, she turns to face the predatory beasts and manages to stop them in their tracks. They bow down to her, suggesting that Hushpuppy is now in control of her own life and proving that she has the strength to do so. These scenes reveal much about Hushpuppy herself, an incredibly brave and clever child who is at one with her world.