REVIEW: Beasts of the Southern Wild Lives Up to Its Moral Universe

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There was talk, back a week or so ago, about the perfect Father’s Day movie. Some made jokes about That’s My Boy, others took the opportunity to reassert the paternal themes across the work of Wes Anderson, including his latest, Moonrise Kingdom. I couldn’t help thinking, watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, a dreamy, boisterous, folk-inflected allegory of American independence and its foes, among other things, that for a certain type of father and daughter, at least, the story of a benevolent universe-ruler named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her willful dad Wink (Dwight Henry) would unleash the floodgates like no other.

If you’ve ever attempted to prepare for your own death at your father’s hands by leaving a record for the future excavators of history, you might agree. But then Hushpuppy’s circumstances are so unique that they could only be hers; Hushpuppy’s world is the world. The success of this exuberant, affecting debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin depends on his ability to universalize the particular, in this case by drawing us into the perspective of a six-year-old girl living in squalor and feeling and uncertainty in the Louisiana bayou, then telling our own story from behind it.

That story is rich enough to accommodate a number of thematic inscriptions, including American class and ideological disparities, moral philosophies of prosperity and independence, environmental imbalance and Katrina-esque catastrophe, and, perhaps most indelible, reckoning with our inevitable visit from the goon squad.

Though she scrawls a cave-drawing version of her own imminent fate (death by very, very angry dad) after setting her trailer ablaze in a fit of don’t-ignore-me pique, Beasts details young Hushpuppy’s confrontation with her father’s mortality. Like Where the Wild Things Are’s Max (more specifically in Spike Jonze's adaptation), she has a single parent, in this case an unstable and ailing man trying to instill self-sufficiency in his daughter before his time runs out. What Hushpuppy sees, variously and with a level, absorbent gaze, is a bully, a crank, a king, a madman, a playmate, and a scary dad. Like everything else, she imagines his illness as her doing, and assumes that when he goes he will take the world with him. Both Wallis and Henry are non-professionals plucked from the local environs, each personifying — along with a supporting cast of outsiders and eccentrics —the toughness of spirit that keeps their characters at the center of a very specific universe, come what storms and tusked beasts may.

Beasts was shot on location, though its marshy, water-veined bayou setting is more of a frame for the starkly imagined habitat of Hushpuppy and her father. They live among the animals; sometimes they eat with them, sometimes they eat them. In the earthy, ethereal opening sequence, Hushpuppy searches for the heartbeat of various creatures, holding some up to her ear like a seashell, piecing together a collective rhythm. For her heartbeats have a soothing effect; others have their own ideas. The sailor Hushpuppy meets on the water, after she and a coterie of dirty-limbed girls attempt to swim out to the light believed to be her mother, says it’s the smell of chicken biscuits that makes him feel “cohesive.”

At times it feels like not much holds this world together; at others it seems nothing could possibly tear it apart. Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson create a sense of coherent near-chaos with constant, searching camerawork. They shoot from the hip, literally — life as seen from a little person’s point of view — with the wobbly, watchful intensity of a young girl just getting her sea legs. At the same time that we see the world as Hushpuppy does, we take in the tenuousness of her existence with apprehension. At first the romantically appointed poverty and dissipation may set off a certain wariness; the marshalling of filth and decay as the authentic counterpoint to sleek, self-alienated lives. And indeed, the group’s violent evacuation to a shelter following a storm’s devastating flood feels too easy, a false note in an otherwise nuanced and persuasive evocation of stubborn iconoclasm.

That Hushpuppy’s perspective eventually swallows and uplifts the movie is the happy result of an uncommonly sensitive screenplay (adapted from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious by Alibar and Zeitlin) and the staging of a climax whose transcendence removes all doubt that we are in the hands of a confident, exceptionally lyrical filmmaker. Wink calls his daughter the king and the boss lady, commands her to eat crab like a beast, admonishes her when she jumps from a catfish’s sting, and drills into her the idea that she should never, ever cry. The latter feels like a nod to Beasts’s own vulnerability to sentiment. Instead, with the help of a tough-bodied little girl too fantastically of the earth to fall prey to the preternatural, it strikes upon actual, unforgettable emotion.

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  • Paul Corby says:

    That this movie and Cloud Atlas are ignored while shi*e like The Master and Silver Lining and Paperboy get heaped with acclaim makes me wonder if Mitt Romney has taken over the film industry.

    • Dino says:

      Cloud Atlas and Beasts were garbage. Cloud never made the connections it needed to. An epic isn't made by a grand score and long running time. Beasts was just boring and predictable, with one of the worst endings I've seen in a long time. After I saw it with a group of friends we were complaining about how bad it was and I told them it'll get nominated for an oscar. Although Paperboy recieved mixed reviews at best, not much acclaim, as did The Master. The Master had some of the best acting in a film this year.

  • Analysis of Beasts of the Southern Wild, by Sarah Smith, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis Doctoral student

    In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hush Puppy is a young girl around the age of nine who finds herself living with her father on an island off the coast of New Orleans. The island is in danger of becoming extinct due to glaciers melting and water levels rising. Hush Puppy narrates the film and we get a first person account of how her inner psychic voice parallels external dynamics in the southern wild.
    Early in the film Hush Puppy has the thought, "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right--if one piece breaks, the whole universe breaks." We see this notion exemplified in the daily ritual Hush Puppy and her dad have created together. They seem to co-exist in their natural habitat, fending together without a woman to cook for them and help unite them together under one roof. When Hush Puppy's dad goes missing, there's no one to call for "feed up" time, and therefore, a break in the universe. Hush Puppy's idea about this in a conversation with her imagined mother is, "Mama, I've broken everything."

    Periodically we see images of oversized beasts running through the wild habitat. I am led to believe that these beasts exist as part of Hush Puppy's psyche. She thinks that, "If you can fix the broken beast, everything can go right back." We hear her father's depiction of how she was conceived. After she was born, her mother "swam away." Hush Puppy's mother left and her father is morbidly sick. Hush Puppy thinks that if she can fix her inner beasts, her mother will come back and her father will be cured. "Sometimes you can break something so bad it can't get put back together.” We begin to see the burden Hush Puppy carries. She believes it is her fault her dad is sick and her mother left. When she expresses her anger at her father for him leaving her alone, she punches him in his heart and he falls to the ground gasping for air. She cannot even safely express her rage at her circumstances and have her father contain her feelings-- her expression of anger becomes a reiteration that she is the cause of her father's sickness.

    Hush Puppy begins to work through some of these psychic limitations as she and her father make their way around the island after the large storm. He realizes her fragility when he sees her trying to nourish herself by eating a leaf. He shows his love for her by teaching her how to fish and how to crack crabs, "beast it!" She says that if her father is gone then she'd be gone too. This is an example of her narcissistic attachment to her parents. Part of her is already missing since her mother is gone, and if her father dies, she imagines she'll be dead too. Her father tries to teach her that she needs to learn how to take care of herself. "Strong animals got no mercy-- they eat their own mamas and daddies." We begin to see strength emerge in Hush Puppy. She begins to transform the beast within her which has functioned as a self- attacking mechanism, into a libidinal force bound with her father's desire to stay on the island and defend his home. "Everybody loses the thing that made them--brave men stay and watch it happen, they don't run." Hush Puppy begins to see her father as separate from herself, an object whom she loves and desires to protect and defend as part of herself, but separate.

    On a boat ride toward land with a quirky sea captain, a journey I found to be symbolic more so than real--the captain talks about the importance of chicken biscuit wrappers that have accumulated on the boat as the elemental reminders of, …"who I was when I ate each one." He claims they help him feel cohesive. Hush Puppy exclaims her desire to be cohesive. What seems to continue as a dream sequence to a brothel on land renders Hush Puppy's encounter with her lost mother. While feeding her fried crocodile, Hush Puppy's mother reemphasizes the necessity of being able to take care of herself. I'm struck by the idea that perhaps the symbolic fried crocodile, the meal her parents first shared together at Hush Puppy's conception, might also serve as the reminder to Hush Puppy of who she was each time she eats it. It could be her element of cohesion.

    As Hush Puppy arrives back on the island to reunite with her father on his deathbed, she is being pursued by the beasts. She is not scared by them at this point; in fact she turns around to view one of them up close and says, "You're my friend, kind of." These beasts have been part of her for a long time. They've haunted her and tormented her. Now they have become part of her in an integrated way. She recognizes what they have meant to her psychically, but she no longer needs them as part of a repetition function. She has resolved the resistance to seeing her parents as separate from herself and the need to be protected by them in order to feel whole. She says to the beast, "I've gotta take care of mine." She is freed from the need to feel scared by her father’s imminent death, or to be angry at him for abandoning her. Instead, she is able to sit with him and her feelings and share a bit of her cohesion in the form of fried crocodile. They cry together, something he's forbidden them to do. This marks a symbolic shift from their operating as two parts of a narcissistic unit, to seeing each other as separate beings and sharing object-oriented love for one another.

    The film ends with Hush Puppy's statement that, "I'm a little beast of a big universe and that makes it all okay." Hush Puppy no longer needs to keep a fragile construction of a universe which could be broken at any moment. Instead she accepts herself wholly, including her inner beasts. Her acceptance and understanding of herself is what makes her feel safe in the world now. And all at the tender age of nine years old.

  • Layla says:

    Great, thanks for sharing this post.Thanks Again. Really Great.