Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) live in a place called “The Bathtub,” nicknamed for the area’s tendency to flood when a storm and other natural disasters strike. Located south of the levee, their community is separated from modern society but this is not to suggest that their culture is less than. On the contrary, despite the poverty around them, they are a proud people with a knack for survival. While Hushpuppy and Wink have a fight due to the former causing a fire, huge chunks of ice in the Arctic, which happen encase giant prehistoric animals, melt and collapse. Aurochs tend to demolish everything that happens to be on their way and so the Louisiana bayou is under threat.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on the screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, is the kind of picture that our culture should be hungry for because it meshes reality and fantasy in such a way that is engaging, challenging, and worthwhile. If someone from a thousand years from now takes the time to watch this movie, I imagine that person being transported to the in-folds of time and dreams, a similar feeling that takes over my entire system each time I am engulfed in the imagination and ambition of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The celebration of life is the overarching theme that permeates through the collective lives of the bayou residents. Within the first ten minutes, it immerses us in life, from a crowd of excited people celebrating in the streets while fireworks brighten the dark skies, babies crying for attention, down to the manner in which the chickens cluck every other step and freshly caught crabs skitter about on their alien environment. Flooding us with a myriad of images so alive, it attempts to break down some of our notions about people living in squalor, mainly that they are unhappy and therefore must be pitied.
At the same time, the film is not afraid to deliver the unflinching reality of what it means to be economically marginalized. We watch Wink and Hushpuppy go about their usual days and wonder how they can subsist on what they have–or don’t have. When it rains, for instance, they do not even have a proper roof to keep all of the water out of their home. Further, the walls are so thin, the thunder sounds like a lion’s roar that is only a few feet away. When it is dark, close-ups are used more often to draw us into looking at their physicality and reading their conflicting thoughts through the emotions that have surfaced on their faces. Likewise, the wide shots are utilized wisely, usually in the daytime, in order to give us an idea of what the characters have to work with. And it isn’t much.
Under Benh Zeitlin’s careful direction, the symbolism in the film does not overpower the flow and rhythm of the story being told. For instance, the flood could have been so dramatized that at one point the focus might have shifted to the disaster instead of a six-year-old trying to make sense of what is going on. Instead, Hushpuppy wakes up one morning and mostly everything is submerged accompanied by an eerie quietness. It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the typhoon-magnet Philippines. A storm would rage overnight and when I woke up, I would step on my patio and notice that the streets would be blanketed by cream-colored water with current so powerful, moderately-sized trees would be carried downstream as if they were made out of plastic toys.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on Lucy Alibar’s play, offers something unique to the table and it is understandable why some might be at a loss on why it is special. Because our film culture, currently, is so inundated with the familiar, I think a lot of us have learned to expect less. I hope young people as well as future filmmakers will see this, be inspired, and follow by example: that it’s perfectly okay to color outside the lines, use nail polish instead of crayons, or perhaps tear up the pages altogether and make a collage instead.