By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
“Beasts of the Southern Wilds,” directed by Benh Zeitland, written by Lucy Alibar from her play, “Juicy and Delicious.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wilds” is one of the most unusual and original films I’ve seen in a long time. It is haunting, magical, and raw. The movie was adapted from a play by Lucy Alibar called, “Juicy and Delicious,” about a 10-year-old boy and set in Georgia. She and her filmmaker friend, Benh Zeitlin, who ended up directing, changed the lead to a girl and moved the setting to the bayous outside New Orleans. The cast was made up of locals from the area.
“Beasts” stars and is narrated—more occasional philosophical musing than straight-ahead narration—by a button-nosed, 10-year-old marvel of a girl, Quvenzhané Wallis, who is not a trained actor, but can naturally and instinctively act circles around current child movie stars. She plays wild-haired Hushpuppy, who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, also a non-actor who is a baker in real life) in a Louisiana lowland backwater.
Their relationship is detached in more ways than one. They are survivors of a previous hurricane and flood that left them and their neighbors isolated on small spit of land they call the Bathtub, a makeshift community where everyone knows and accepts one another. They are a happy, responsible mixture of poor whites, Hispanics, and Blacks—rough-edged women and men whose hard lives are written on their faces and bodies, who live in wooden shacks and houseboats. Some of Hushpuppy’s friends are blond, freckle-faced kids. There’s a school and, of course, a saloon; and a sort of clinic.
Wink lives in a wreck of a mobile home across from his daughter’s equally wrecked trailer; between them is a stretch of wilderness where junked, rusting appliances are strewn about, covered by a tangle of vines, trees and shrubs. Chickens and pigs wander freely about. Dinner consists of his literally throwing a just-killed and plucked chicken on a makeshift barbeque. He alerts her when it’s done by pulling on a rope hung with a bell strung between the trailers.
Her mother, who vibrated such heat she “could turn on the stove just by moving past it,” had disappeared when Hushpuppy was a baby, presumably to the local whorehouse across a wide canal. Wink paints a picture of her that is pure poetic imagery. One scene depicts her and Wink sailing on the canal in a makeshift boat, gazing out across to the concrete levy beyond which refineries spew toxic waste from their towering smokestacks.
Right away we see that Hushpuppy, who wears shorts, a tank top, and calf-high white rubber boots to traverse the wet, spongy land, is truly connected not only to the Earth, but the universe. The child tells us what she sees and what she thinks about the creatures who are as alive to her as the humans who populate the Bathtub. They do not fear the girl. Birds and small animals allow her to hold them to listen to their heartbeats.
Wink is an alcoholic who disappears for days, leaving her to fend for herself. She is a prescient child who sees in her mind’s eye mountainous chunks of ice calving from glaciers, and heaving seas, portending their rise caused by global warming. In one such scene, we see through her eyes prehistoric beasts like a cross between a mammoth and a wild boar, frozen, beneath the ice. As the film progresses and the ice melts away, the multi-tusked beasts appear ready to break free, and do. They charge after Hushpuppy in a startling, suspense-filled scene. Make what you will of what these beasts symbolize. Zeitlin filmed Hushpuppy’s imaginings, created painterly by cinematographer Ben Richardson, so that they segue seamlessly from her surroundings.
Local authorities patrolling the canals and bayous warn residents that a hurricane is due and that they have to evacuate. Most opt to stay put, including Hushpuppy and Wink, along with a few diehards who shelter in the saloon as the thunderous, apocalyptic-sounding storm approaches, passes over them and dies. (Some shots of the aftermath of the storm reminded me of the horrific scenes of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina.)
Again, authorities arrive and insist people come to be checked for water-borne diseases. A few resist violently and once sedated are brought in. The contrast between life in Bathtub and antiseptic scenes of the clinic and to see Hushpuppy in a radically different guise makes you sense what the people feel: manipulated and trapped.
Once back home and now truly cut off, the people decide to live on their own: grow their own food and raise their own meat. And they do for a time, until changes in the water surrounding Bathtub as a result of the hurricane and the levies impel Wink and others to act. Here, I questioned the writers for not having the Bathtub perpetrators of obviously illegal acts face some consequences.
Still, overall, the film isn’t about that. It’s about having reverence for all living things, recognizing the negative impact humans have made and continue to make on the earth, the seas, and the atmosphere surrounding this lovely blue planet, and instilling in us the need to do something about it now.