Still from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) — Image via foxsearchlight.com

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Directed by Benh Zeitlin (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild, the first feature by director Benh Zeitlin and his Court 13 filmmaking collective, was, by all accounts, the breakout hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A relatively low-budget effort that doesn’t feel like one, the film features compelling performances from mostly nonprofessional actors, as well as stunning cinematography, all in the service of a story about a child whose world is literally (and figuratively, for that matter) falling apart around her.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is set in The Bathtub, a fictional bayou community in the far south of Louisiana where six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in two makeshift trailers. The Bathtub lies beyond the protection of the federal levee system, which makes it virtually inevitable that it will eventually be swallowed by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The town’s residents — whose numbers are dwindling — appear to survive primarily through subsistence fishing and livestock raising, and they spend their spare time drinking, telling stories and throwing raucous parties.

Still from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) — Image via foxsearchlight.comIt is hard to know quite what to make of The Bathtub and its collection of proud, stubborn and desperately vulnerable residents — especially as seen from the perspective of a young child who is struggling to make sense of life-changing events, including not only the impending destruction of her community but also her father’s worsening health. Hushpuppy knows that Wink wants her to be tough and self-sufficient. She also knows that she one day wants to find her mother, who allegedly “swam away” when she was a baby. And after an idiosyncratic natural history lesson from her teacher, Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), she comes to believe that Ice Age creatures called aurochs have been unleashed upon the earth and are threatening to disrupt the balance of nature.

A number of elements of the film may encourage viewers to uncritically adopt Hushpuppy’s point of view, including her frequent voiceovers, the sweeping soundtrack that supports her epic and fantastical conceptions, and first-time child actor Wallis’s compelling portrayal of the character. Yet Zeitlin does not shy away from showing facets of reality that contradict Hushpuppy’s worldview or that she simply does not and cannot understand. The Bathtub is presented with all of its many warts — and the alternative that its residents face if they leave their homes is also portrayed, in the form of a grim, understaffed social services facility where the group is briefly taken after a forced evacuation by the government.

At several points, Hushpuppy expresses her determined hope that the people of the future will know something about her and her father and the lives they lived in The Bathtub. And one thing that the film makes abundantly clear about this small corner of the world is that it is almost gone. Between Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that occurred while the film was being shot, all that is left of many communities like this one are stories. Beasts of the Southern Wild was clearly made with a great sense of urgency, and the result is a deeply committed effort that deserves the attention it has received and will hopefully continue to receive.

Originally posted on The 400 Blows

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.