Dir. Benh Zeitlin
(2012, PG-13, 93 minutes)
To appreciate Beasts of the Southern Wild requires you to go with its unusual flow. It takes place in a Southern Louisiana community called the Bathtub, but its setting is as much the mind of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a young girl living hand-to-mouth with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). It’s a magical-realist child’s-eye-view of poverty, and at times it’s difficult to separate the magical from the real, because so much of life in the Bathtub seems improbable. I wasn’t always able to settle into the film’s rhythm, but after it ended I increasingly admired it the more I thought about it.
I admit being preoccupied with practical thoughts about the Bathtub instead of swept up by its swampland utopia. What is their education system? Have they ever seen a real doctor? Are they well nourished? What it all really comes down to is, are they really better off there? They’re content in their world out of time, with no sign of television, telephones, or radios. Electric lights and gas stoves are the only clear sign of modern convenience. With such a fragile infrastructure on an island already half-underwater, a passing storm is catastrophic, and standing flood waters spread disease. When rescue crews forcibly remove them from their homes, I couldn’t help but wonder if the rescue crews had the right idea.Nevertheless, I could empathize with those residents, and when they find themselves in a rescue shelter on the protected side of the levee, I felt the jarring shift. To be pulled from the lives they know into the cold, impersonal reality of modern civilization is like being abducted by aliens, and the contrast between the two ways of life highlights the advantages and disadvantages of both. What they have at home are intimacy, independence, and tradition, but within their lifetimes it will likely be swallowed by the ocean.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink. We come to understand Wink gradually, in fragments. Seen entirely through his daughter’s eyes he is largely a mystery, absent for long stretches, of questionable health. Early on he seems irresponsible, even negligent; their home consists of two separate trailers – one for him, one for her – separated by a string of bells he uses to call her for dinner. But as the story develops, so does our sympathy for him. Late scenes give us a fuller understanding of their relationship, leading to a beautiful payoff.
The story meanders along with its protagonist, who speaks in voice-overs about history, fate, and the scope of the universe like a rustic Tree of Life. She longs for her mother, whom she only knows through Wink’s stories, and at one time leaves her home in search of her. Here again, practical concerns intrude upon thematic ones: did the adults in the Bathtub not notice that their children wandered off for the better part of a day, or should that particular story development not be taken literally?
That was my chief difficulty during the film: following its dreamy drift between way-of-life realism and flight-of-childhood-fancy. But it lingered in my mind after it was over, making deeper connections in my memory. The Bathtub is a little like that. In one sense it’s a place. It another, it’s a state of mind.