Just hearing the name, Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was on board. After I saw the trailer I was over the moon. When I read the early reviews that discussed Cajun folklore and magical realism, I felt compelled to drive the 1,100 miles to the nearest theater showing the film. The next week it opened in two theaters here in Seattle and I didn’t have to make that drive, what I’m getting at is that this film is my kind of thing. The magical poetry of Sam Shepard, Jose Rivera, and Charlie Kaufman, mixed with the youthful beauty of The Black Stallion and Where the Wild Things Are. Of course all that would be ruined if the film didn’t live up to my expectations. No need to worry, it did.
It’s been a good long while since I’ve seen a film that delivered so superbly in all facets. The acting, which was comprised of mostly new comers and non-actors was spot on. The writing was pure poetry. The cinematography was breathtaking and full of wonderment. The music, the direction, the design… all of it was truly magical. I tried long and hard to figure out just one thing I didn’t like and I came up with this, the movie ended. That’s it.
As far as the story is concerned, here’s what you need to know. Six year old Hushpuppy played to unimaginable perfection by (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in the Bathtub, a fictional Southern Delta community of New Orleans, with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Their relationship is tumultuous, much of that owing to Wink’s mysterious illness, his disappearance for days at a time, and his very tough love. Hushpuppy’s mother disappeared long ago, but appears later in a dreamlike sequence that is a real highlight of the film. The story really begins after a storm (Hurricane Katrina) hits the coast and the Bathtub is flooded. Hushpuppy goes on the physical and emotional journey of becoming independent. After staring down the beasts (aurochs) unleashed after the melting of the polar icecaps, she becomes the king of the Bathtub.
There is so much I want to and could say about this film, instead of rambling for pages and pages I’ve boiled it down to two elements; style and emotion. The style borders on an almost documentary feel, with its shaky cam, grainy film, and constant refocusing camera lens. It has you questioning what is real both in terms of the story and in terms of the real world, and what is Hollywood magic and Hushpuppy’s imagination. The rotting animal carcasses, the caterpillar infested leaves, or waterlogged landscapes give you the sense that they were simply captured right there on the spot.
In stark contrast to the realism is the obviously fantastical elements, the aurochs, Hushpuppy and friends swimming out into the Gulf of Mexico, the gatorbomb, or the floating Catfish house. Most films draw a clear distinction between what is real and what is imaginary, here they revel in that ambiguity. It all looks real but our brains tell us it can’t be. It’s rare to have that feeling in life and I loved experiencing it.
Then you have the emotional context of the film. This story is endlessly complex, family structure, poverty, community relocation, illness, and growing up, not to mention the penrose steps that is Hurricane Katrina, all are multilayered issues. For many films, attempting to tackle all these issues is a potential death sentence. Not for Beasts, here they shift all the perspective to Hushpuppy, the story unfolds for us as it does for her.
Hurricane Katrina is just a storm, in fact the name is never even used. Wink’s illness isn’t cancer, AIDS, or blood poisoning, he’s just sick. We take adults at their word believing that the rising waters and the appearance of the Aurochs is due only to the melting of the Polar ice caps. We engage in fantasies real or imagined that help us work through or understand the tough times in life.
As an audience member this can become frustrating at times, we’re just not sure of a characters logic. Is wink neglectful or is he preparing Hushpuppy for his eventual departure? As I mentioned, these topics are complex, but when viewed through the eyes of a six year old girl, they have a surprisingly simple explanation. When moments become too heavy for Hushpuppy’s mind to wrap around, just like the refocusing lens of the camera, the details get fuzzy.
This is an emotional film and I noticed my wife crying through a majority of it. Normally we discuss movies endlessly on the ride home, but the most I could conjure from her was a head nod. I had a feeling that this movie was very visceral for her both in the imagery and the emotional core. By the following morning she was able to talk about it and confessed her love of the film, in the moments after she was left a little raw. For perhaps the first time in the ten years I’ve known her, silence was her greatest compliment.
Something else happened just as the movie was ending. As Hushpuppy delivers her closing voiceover my pregnant wife felt a series of major contractions. They ended up going nowhere, but at the time we thought that it was the real deal, that just hours after watching this film we’d be holding our little girl. Hushpuppy was a fighter, a survivor, an independent leader of her neighbors by films end. I wanted all the same for my daughter, I just didn’t want hser to endure the same experiences. It’s an emotional reaction that can only be expected of parents or soon to be parents.
As I look back on what I’ve written here I realize how much is left out, how much of what makes this film wonderful, brave, original, and beautiful I just didn’t touch on. I could have written a whole book on this film. What it really comes down to in the end is that this film made me jealous. Jealous that I didn’t write it, that it wasn’t my story. That is the best compliment that I can give it. Get yourself to see this movie now, it’s got a fairly limited theatrical release but if you look hard enough your sure to find a theater playing it somewhere relatively close to you.