Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an intrepid six-year-old girl, lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in 'the Bathtub," a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink’s tough love prepares her for the unraveling of the universe; for a time when he’s no longer there to protect her. When Wink contracts a mysterious illness, nature flies out of whack—temperatures rise, and the ice caps melt, unleashing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. With the waters rising, the aurochs coming, and Wink’s health fading, Hushpuppy goes in search of her lost mother.
Reviewed at the 2012 CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: "Everybody loses the thing they’re made by," warns Benh Zeitlin’s extraordinary debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild. "The brave ones stay and watch it; they don’t run."
In this lyrical hero’s journey, the "brave one" in question is resilient six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a feisty little dynamo who draws upon an upbringing steeped in the superstitions of the bayou to cope with impending orphanhood.
In Zeitlin’s pre- / post-Katrina portrait of life in 'The Bathtub’ (the wetlands on the other side of the levees), tenacious Hushpuppy navigates the marsh in her gumboots and knickers, and lives in partial-solitude save for her father, Wink, and their tiny community of weather-beaten swamp folk. As they shelter from fierce storms in their ramshackle abode, Wink agitates Hushpuppy to independence ("Who da man? YOU da man!") to ready her for the days when he won’t be there, which are coming sooner than she knows.
With wide-eyed wonderment, Hushpuppy absorbs her teacher’s dire lessons about the delicate order of things, and of man’s inexorable place in the food chain ("Everything that lives is meat. I’m meat, Y’all’s asses is meat. We’s all part of the buffet of the universe"). These teachings on cause-and-effect are delivered with a biblical sense of doom that lights a fire in the little girl’s imagination.
Hushpuppy’s worldview dictates that "the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts – even the smallest piece – the entire universe will get busted". Small wonder then, that the looming death of her own universe’s epicentre threatens to bust it wide open and spark a chain of calamity that starts with a flood, and extends - in the logic of a rattled six-year-old - to the melted ice caps unleashing a herd of prehistoric beasts down on the bayou.
Zeitlin’s poetic fantasy never wavers from the child’s rationalisation of the coming catastrophe and its aftermath, or her niggling belief that deep down, she might just be responsible. By all accounts, Zeitlin adapted the character to suit newcomer Wallis’ temperament, and the film lives and dies on her stoic posturing and jaw-jutting warrior stance.
In the wake of a storm, FEMA-like intruders uproot Hushpuppy and Co. to an evacuation centre on higher ground ("it’s like a fish tank with no water," she observes), but what they find there only compounds her mistrust of outsiders: "When an animal gets sick here, they plug it into the wall". Zeitlin’s battle cry of endangered people is sympathetic to their prejudices about life on the other side of the levee, and champions their resolve to live at the mercy of the elements.
The audacity and harsh beauty of Beasts of the Southern Wild is all the more impactful when you consider it’s the work of a first-time filmmaker, with a mostly first-time crew (much of it sourced from Louisiana, including the non-professional cast). It expertly tackles a magical narrative to ensure you get swept up in Hushpuppy’s reality, with extra emotional investment enabled by Zeitlin’s sweeping score. It’s an ambitious work, which blends natural world file footage of collapsing polar caps with complex CGI sequences of stampeding Aurochs, to tell its micro/macro mythology of a child’s rite of passage. (Fact checkers please pipe up, but this might be the first debut feature to bear an 'Auroch lab facility’ credit). For the way it encapsulates existential yearning it shares a thing or two with last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Tee Malick’s Tree of Life, with the obvious point of difference being that Beasts has, well, a clear and discernable narrative.
Watch 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' at SBS On Demand
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