Where did this one come from? No, seriously, am I the only one who was completely blindsided by this movie? Two months ago, I'd never even heard of it. Then just a few weeks ago, I hear about all of these rave reviews coming in, after it had been picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight.
Exactly how the hell did this happen, and what can we do to make sure it happens more often?!
For those who still aren't aware of what I'm talking about, Beasts of the Southern Wild apparently came out to rave reviews and several awards victories in Cannes and Sundance a few months ago. The film itself concerns a young girl called "Hushpuppy" (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father ("Wink," played by Dwight Henry). They live in "The Bathtub," a tiny island off the southeastern coast of the United States (near Louisiana, I assume).
The Bathtub is essentially a place forgotten by civilization at large, completely cut off from the rest of the world. The inhabitants live entirely off the land, without any food that they haven't raised, hunted, and/or cooked themselves. It's a place of total anarchy, where nobody sheds a tear if someone dies for being too weak or too stupid to keep on living. Basically, people living in the Baltimore projects would look at these living conditions and go "DAMN, son!"
Anyway, the film gets going at the end of the first act, when a massive storm floods the entire island. Those select few residents lucky enough to still be above the waterline -- Hushpuppy and Wink among them -- struggle to maintain their lifestyles and rebuild their homes, in spite of the fact that their island is now underwater.
See, the key thing about the Bathtub community is that they're happy. The people who live there all care for each other, and they really do like living this Neolithic lifestyle. Sure, you could call them backwards and ignorant for that choice. However, they'd most likely reply that we're too soft, we aren't as in tune with nature, we're more prone to in-fighting, and they -- unlike us -- have done pretty much nothing to speed up global warming. All of those are difficult charges to deny.
Nature is a huge deal to the residents of Bathtub, but not in a hippie kind of way. They don't respect their fellow animals, any more than a bear respects a deer it mauls apart. As far as the Bathtub is concerned, human beings are predators and should own up to the fact.
In case it isn't obvious by now, animals have a huge part to play, both in the film and in the Bathtub community. Some are kept as pets, others are bred for food, and Hushpuppy shows a great affinity for all of them. In fact, given their merciless and primitive nature, the residents of Bathtub are only ten hairs away from being animals themselves. None more so than Wink.
More than any other character, Wink is the driving force behind this narrative. For one thing, he's a drunkard with completely unpredictable mood swings, which makes it hard to tell what he'll do or how he'll act toward Hushpuppy. It's tempting to call him an abusive father, but it's equally tempting to call the entire culture abusive. And really, that's what it all comes down to with Wink.
Wink hates outside culture with a vengeance, and he would never live anywhere but the Bathtub. He's a man who insists on living in the wild, getting from day to day by making nature submit to him. What he (and the other residents of the Bathtub, for that matter) doesn't realize is that man ultimately cannot win against nature. Nature is bigger and more powerful than any one person, or any one species. As such, Wink's fight to retain his home and his lifestyle is a losing battle. In fact, it's actually a lost battle, considering that his home island no longer exists. This isn't even a matter of one culture gaining precedence and popularity over another: The whole island was literally swept away by the very hand of God Himself! If ever there was a sign that one's lifestyle is untenable and obsolete, that's surely it!
Even so, Wink and his colleagues refuse to accept what's plainly obvious. Even when faced with starvation and sickness, they would still rather die than change. Then again, it's not like any of these people would last five minutes in a city or a suburb anyway, so what's the point?
Moving on, it's worth remembering that Wink isn't the main character of this film. That would be Hushpuppy, the young girl who comes of age as the film progresses. Wink may be the character driving the plot forward, but we always see his actions through Hushpuppy's eyes. Additionally, for all of Wink's uncontrollable and borderline-abusive behavior, Hushpuppy still loves him and depends on him. She firmly believes that she can't go on living without his protection, never mind that she's already capable of fending for herself in what may be the least hospitable place in North America. Realizing that she has that strength is a key part of her development.
Most importantly, Wink is there to represent the past while Hushpuppy represents the future. All throughout the running time, there's always the implicit question of what Hushpuppy will do with everything that her dad has taught her. After all, she's still young. She could easily leave and try to find a new life someplace else, or she could try guiding her people through one more generation. It's not an exaggeration to say that the Bathtub could easily live or die on her say-so.
We learn fifteen minutes in that Wink is dying from some unnamed disease, and everything that he represents is going to die with him. Therefore, the crux of this movie is whether or not Wink can adequately raise his daughter to survive, and what will happen to her when he's gone. So basically, it's the challenge every parent faces, only set in the island that time forgot.
Lastly, I have to talk about the aurochs. Early in the film, Hushpuppy learns about pre-historic animals and their "eat or be eaten" relationship with cavemen. At roughly the same time, we see a herd of aurochs break free from the global ice caps and start running free once again (global warming, you see). As the film continues, we occasionally cut back to the aurochs until they cross paths with Hushpuppy. Keep in mind that this is all likely a figment of our young protagonist's imagination, though the film leaves that up to interpretation.
The aurochs had me stumped for a long time after I walked out of this movie. They didn't have any effect on the plot, so their significance must be symbolic, but what did they symbolize? I thought they represented nature or perhaps death, but neither interpretation made much sense after their climactic scene with Hushpuppy. Finally, something like four hours later, I had an epiphany.
The aurochs represent fear. Specifically, they represent Hushpuppy's fears. They represent her fear of how the rest of humanity is destroying the planet, her fear of getting eaten by wild animals, her fear of being hurt by the people she loves, etc. Furthermore, when Hushpuppy finally confronts the aurochs near the end of the movie, it's symbolic of how she's grown up.
On a similar note, I must point out that the aurochs look fantastic. They all look like genuine flesh-and-blood creatures. The visuals in this movie are all astounding, in point of fact, as they all present a very ugly and very unglamorous world to eke out a living in. Yes, the shaky-cam can get a little annoying at times, but this is precisely the kind of intimate and rough-edged film in which shaky-cam works best.
Major kudos are due to Benh Zeitlin for his sterling direction, the wonderful screenplay he co-wrote, and the fantastic score he helped compose, all on his first full-length picture! Dwight Henry also makes his debut in this film, knocking the role of Wink clear out of the park. He's a fascinating character, and there's never a dull moment when Henry is also on the screen. Finally, we'd all better start learning how to pronounce "Quvenzhané Wallis" soon, because this girl is going places. For a mere five-year-old to turn in Oscar-caliber work on her first movie is nothing short of miraculous.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is among the most pleasant surprises I've seen in quite some time. The story is rich, the execution is sterling, the characters and the setting are fascinating to watch, and this was only the debut feature for pretty much everyone involved!
Give this film a chance at your earliest convenience. I promise you won't regret it.