Beasts of the Southern Wild is a story with multiple strands of meaning woven through its length and breadth. Told from the point of view of five-year-old Hushpuppy, this modern-day tale of life on the deliberate outskirts of society draws a straight line from our cavemen forebears to our modern civilization, and makes the argument that the raw, uninhibited life, at one with nature in all its glory and fearsomeness, may be the true meaning of civilized life; free from all the trappings of modernity our true nature shows through, feral and beautiful.
Hushpuppy is a child who, like a young foal or a newly-birthed lynx cub, needed no time at all to grow up. Living with her daddy Wink in a pair of shanties on a half-condemned island in the bayou, off the levee’d coast of Louisiana (one house is his, one is hers, connected by a winding string threaded through tin-can bells that are rung to call each other for feeding time), Hushpuppy is at once wise and naive, like all children are, really, to some degree. Living on the edge of the sea like a utopian breakaway cult returning to nature, the residents of Bathtub are nonetheless fully aware that just one good storm will wash away everything they know, and there’ll be no Bathtub, as Hushpuppy notes pragmatically, just a whole lotta water.
This may be the reason why the residents celebrate living at any opportunity, no reason needed. Hushpuppy says that her daddy says that the people on the other side only celebrate once a year, and they eat fish wrapped in plastic.
Daddy always saying, up in the dry world, they don’t got what we got. But me n my daddy, we stay right here. We who the earth is for.
The definitive image of this film is an ecstatic Hushpuppy racing towards you as all the residents celebrate, a pair of lit sparklers blazing in each hand, while in the background her body is silhouetted against the fireworks lighting the night sky and illuminating the swamp-like greenery.
Hushpuppy learns about the state of the world from a freely-cussing but intensely loving teacher, who talks about the melting glaciers, and the parts of the world that the water’s subsequent rise will cause to sink beneath the waves. Marked on a map in heavy black marker is a dotted line, across the lower half of the United States, across the bottom of the state of Louisiana, and below this line, the tiny island of Bathtub. First to disappear beneath the waves.
She learns about the cave paintings that her ancient ancestors used to tell the world that they were there, that they lived and they died. She evidently takes this to heart, never seen without a piece of charcoal with which to draw fuzzy haired images of herself on the floor, on the inside of cardboard boxes, on the wall, for the scientists of the future to find. Once there was a girl named Hushpuppy…
She has visions of the ice cascading off the glaciers and falling into the sea, and nightmares of the prehistoric aurochs, giant, triple-horned predecessors of modern day boars, coming to get her from out of their newly melted cages.
These visions become more and more real, as with the one, big storm that finally floods out the Bathtub, the aurochs arrive, borne on the water from the melted glaciers. It’s difficult to say how much of this is the imaginings of a five-year-old girl with fears of things out there in the dark, and how much of it is supposed to be real. Until you realize that, when you are five years old, all the monstrous creatures are real.
Everything’s part of the buffet of the universe…her teacher informs them, raising her skirt to show the tattooed image of puny cavemen facing a pair of giant aurochs. In cavemen times…you would be breakfast. Y’all better learn to survive, now.
When her father disappears and comes back coughing and wearing a strange gown and a plastic bracelet, his return sparks a confrontation, followed by an act of defiance that leads to the burning down of her own ‘house’, a stacked-together shanty with the memory of her long-departed mother, in the tangible form of an old red basketball jersey, being the only other occupant.
Then this is followed by the storm arriving and flooding Bathtub, leaving the remaining residents to shuttle from place to place in their makeshift boats (such as Wink’s boat, made out of the back of a pickup truck) and Hushpuppy begins to fear that it is all her fault, that she has broken something, and needs to put it back together somehow. The life that she has always known, living with her father in freedom and extreme independence, surrounded by like-minded folk, is in danger of coming to an end, and the unfolding events begin to reveal her path, and her future.
Fix the broken parts, restore Bathtub to before the flood, she thinks, and her father and Bathtub are fixed.The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.
But she finds soon that it is not that easy to change what’s always been your existence, and begins to learn that some things can never be unbroken.
This film shows the environmental catastrophes wrought by our mere existence on the planet – perhaps Hushpuppy’s guilt at having ‘broken something’ is emblematic of our greater guilt at the state of the earth we live on – and it shows the intricate, beautiful, unorthodox relationships between people living off the grid who know exactly how much they need each other to survive. It reveals the beauty of simple living and the danger of simplistic thought – Wink has a disproportionate sense of his own ability to make everything okay.
And it shows the relationship between a man and his daughter, the callous words that often mark his interactions with her and her just as stubborn responses – she is her father’s child, after all. Watching things through Hushpuppy’s eyes though, you realize that this is a child who doesn’t know how much she dearly wants to be a child, to be held and comforted, and not a tiny cave hunter.
But at the same time, you also begin to see how her father is grooming her for survival in a modern world just as callous and cruel as any cave dwelling existence, and only towards the end does she realize the extent to which he would go to ensure a better life for his only family.
As the events of the film unfold, you see the child-who-is-not-a-child become a wise individual, understanding far beyond her remarkably few years in the world, as the weight of deep responsibilities settle on her tiny, yet firm shoulders.
A beautifully shot, heartbreaking film, with quiet lessons to be learned, Beasts is an ode to self-sufficiency, bravery, overcoming of fears, loss, acceptance, and growing up.
Everyone loses the thing that made them, Hushpuppy notes at one point during the film. But at the end, you see this wise, wise child come to an understanding of existence, and her place in it, that poets and priests and soldiers and prophetesses throughout the ages have sought and found and lost and reclaimed:
When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces…I see I’m a little piece of a big, big universe.
While it leaves some loose ends somewhat untied, there is an ultimate sense of cohesion, and it is worth it to note that Beasts of the Southern Wild is not like many films you’ll ever watch, but that gives it all the more reason to linger in your mind.