Mixing magical realism and environmental disaster, Benh Zeitlin’s debut Beasts Of The Southern Wild is a cajun gumbo of childhood, community and imagination.
American Pie by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Every day is a party in the Bathtub. Even a funeral is a raucous shindig of liquor and beasted crabs. And yet a strange foreboding hangs around the tide mark – the levee that sets them apart from the rest of the country threatening to drown them as much as it will keep those on the other side safe. The Bathtub’s inhabitants barely survive as it is, Hushpuppy and her daddy Wink living in raised trailers on catfish and shrimp. But as a community living on the brink of the apocalypse, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild is an astonishing child’s eye view of a life apart.
Combining a magical realism of mythic mammoth aurochs thawed out of melting ice caps roaming the southern wilds with a post-Katrina social grit, Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature Beasts Of The Southern Wild is a sparkling tour de force. The jewels in its cajun crown are the performances by Quvenzhané Wallis and local non-actor Dwight Henry, as well as the beautiful dusky cinematography by Ben Richardson. But they are matched by a punchy script that gives a documentary weight to the fictional community of the Bathtub. It’s only Wink and Hushpuppy, her mother having walked out on them years ago, and together they scrape by, each with their own trailer and a rustic system of communication. It’s run down, a home pulled together from cast-offs, living in a futureless freedom under the constant threat of flooding. But at the end of the road lies a vibrant community, the antithesis of the grey power-station world beyond. Instead, it’s a colourful festival of baby racing and moonshine-fuelled soaks.
Hushpuppy attends school across the water in a pell-mell class of ragamuffin children, travelling with her daddy in a makeshift boat. Those on the other side of the levee are afraid of the water, and fearful for those living in the Bathtub. But for Hushpuppy and her sick father, there are more pressing obstacles threatening their daily struggle for survival than drowning. Hushpuppy lives virtually by herself, eating with the pigs and the dogs and cooking for herself, until she tears her trailer apart in a gas explosion. It’s a beautifully poignant moment, as Hushpuppy hides under a cardboard box, ignoring her desperate father’s calls, wilfully immune to the danger of the encroaching smoke and flames, safe in the paper haven of crayoned drawings and childish games. Their existence is filtered through Hushpuppy’s vivid imagination, her mother so pretty she could light a stove without touching it. But their daily lives are overshadowed by the coming storm and the threat of the rising water, their watery apocalypse foretold by visions of aurochs floating in melting ice-caps towards the southern wilds. For the flood is gonna come.
And it does. Like an environmental catastrophe of rising seas with all the socio-economic backlash of Hurricane Katrina, only a faraway lighthouse offering a maternal beacon of terra firma hope. Trees die poisoned by saltwater, bloated animals putrefy at the water’s edge, and a funeral is held in honour of the unfound dead. It’s a funeral unlike any other, where crying is outlawed and the mourners feast on crustaceans and liquor. It’s a coming-of-age moment, where Hushpuppy beasts her first crab, cracking open its shell in her hands, Wink’s pride and joy. Childhood comes to an end early in the Bathtub, and as Wink hatches a plan to blow the levee up with a swollen alligator bomb, Hushpuppy stows away onboard, and in a last-minute damn-busting kerfuffle, finds herself in charge of pulling the trigger. Perhaps it’s an act of terrorism, but in defence of a culture and a dying way of life.
Pulling the plug on the Bathtub is reimagined as aurochs smashing mercilessly through local houses, the community broken so hard it can’t be put back together again. As Hushpuppy and the other girls are evacuated to safety in a holding camp reminiscent of the Louisiana Superdome, the six-year-old is transformed into a child again, fitted out in a dress, with her hair tied back. Wink, increasingly sick and no longer able to take care of her, tries to get Hushpuppy to safety, and it’s a heartbreaking moment as she realises her daddy’s trying to get rid of her. His blood eating itself, he escapes with them back to the Bathtub, while Hushpuppy swims to the lighthouse to find her mother and some ‘gator magic. And it’s a stunningly Degasesque vision of the floating girls bar, simultaneously seedy and homely. Only the brave stay and watch a parent die, and with Wink too sick to catch a catfish, he’s spared the fate of returning to the evacuation centre to be plugged into the wall, and Hushpuppy looks on as his boat is turned into a funeral pyre.
A magical childlike fantasy, a neo-realist documentary of a father-daughter relationship steeped in poverty in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a testimony to southern States community, Beasts Of The Southern Wild is a tremendous debut. It’s gut-wrenching in its muzzled love – Hushpuppy can count all the times she’s been lifted on two fingers – and heartwarming in its simple altruism – “Take care of people smaller than you.” It’s beautiful and poetic, and although at times Beasts Of The Southern Wild may veer dangerously close to the breakwater of a children’s film, its gumbo mix of fantasy and realism, its emotional anguish and thick-skinned courage make for a potent piece of cinema magic. Zeitlin’s fictional Bathtub is a little piece of a big universe, with all the same problems in an alternative constellation but offering its own particular brand of southern comfort.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild is released in the UK on 19th October 2012