Chickens and Pigs and Aurochs—Oh My!
Beasts of the Southern Wild
(Directed by Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
After winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January and coming back from Cannes with the new Camera D’Or award, it was no surprise that the screenings for Beasts of the Southern Wild were completely sold out at the Little Rock Film Festival earlier this month. It was, however, quite a surprise that Fox Searchlight would let the film screen at the fest at all; it’s only the third stop for the film after the two biggest fests in the world.
What’s the appeal of a film set in a remote-bayou community in a Louisiana ravaged by Hurricane Katrina-inspired storms and floods? We’ve already seen that experience with HBO’s Treme and Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke. But the trailer promises much more than a cinema-verité look at the devastation, and audiences were obviously convinced: It was refreshing to see a line snaking out the door at a commercial multiplex for a film that probably cost a tenth of the budget of this summer’s blockbusters.
The narrative is told from six-year-old Hushpuppy’s point of view—the camera’s default position is about three feet off the ground. Hushpuppy is played with fierce gumption and fearlessness by newcomer and Louisiana–native Quvenzhané Wallis (or “Nazie,” as she was referred to by one of the film’s producers).
Hushpuppy is larger than life. For most of the beginning of the film she treks around in orange underwear, a white tank top, and rain boots. Her hair is never combed and we never see her take a bath, though she lives in a Delta community referred to by residents as The Bathtub. She is natural, a reflection of her environment. She says poetic phrases like “Strong animals know when your hearts are weak.” She has a habit of picking up creatures and listening to their heartbeats by placing their chests up to her ear. Her matted Chihuahua reclines next to a black pot-bellied pig within a swamp menagerie of creatures such as hens and roosters that seem to be domesticated—or is it the owners who are wild?
Hushpuppy is convinced that in millions of years she’ll still be remembered, along with her father, Wink, intensely portrayed by Dwight Henry. From Wink she gets her anger, her survivalism, and most likely her mouth. Wink and Hushpuppy live in their own trailers—separate but close. There is a sort of engineered chaos to the production design: rubber tires, broken toasters, rotten coolers, and other refuse items litter the paths and spaces around their makeshift homes, creating the apocalyptic feeling appropriate for a society set apart from the rest of the world.
Wink can be sweet and fatherly when he’s sober—like most dads—but his harsh abuse toward little Hushpuppy, verbal and physical, would be brutal even against another adult, much less a defenseless six-year-old. Is this part of her point of view, being treated as an equal by her father? Or is it a result of Wink substituting her for her absent mother, simply because she’s the only one around to take his abuse?
Rumor around town is that a storm is coming, but Wink pays no heed, nor do a handful of other Bathtub residents who do not want to be forced to evacuate their homes. Once the storm comes, the story gets mythical and openly embraces magical realism. Hushpuppy sits in a tub wearing floaties on her arms while her dad simply lies on the floor, rain hammering down on them. (This sequence, thanks to some incredible sound design and editing, not to mention a wonderful performance by Miss Wallis, scared the shit out of me. I’ve been through a couple of close calls with tornadoes in the country woods of Arkansas, and my heart was in my throat.)
From Hushpuppy’s point of view, these storms are brought about by a rare and unidentified illness her father has, and all hell breaks loose once he returns from the hospital still wearing his gown and bracelet (he probably wasn’t sent home). Earlier in the film Hushpuppy sees a picture of some glaciers before being told a story about mythical beasts called aurochs from the neighborhood teacher and mythology expert. (I use the term “expert” loosely, but she has the beasts tattooed on the inside of her leg like a cave drawing.) The magnificent aurochs that tower over the land once the storm hits, running wild, are not only inspired by this woman’s leg tat but also resemble one of Hushpuppy’s pot-bellied pigs.
This is the first time we get the Wizard of Oz treatment, as Hushpuppy’s subconscious is informed by the strange and puzzling images she sees. Where Dorothy’s trauma of being hit in the head by the debris from a storm takes her on a mythical journey, Hushpuppy’s confrontation with the thought of losing her father brings about the end of the world. Her father is her world and her way to survive. A quote from the film reiterated at the end of the screening by the film’s producer was “Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.” Hushpuppy says it in the film, but it’s Wink who passes it down to her. Are we made by our fathers or our environments?
The soundtrack is absolutely perfect. A blend of stoic horns and delicate chimes all mix into one of the most triumphant and beautiful orchestra themes I’ve heard in a film. The film’s director, Benh Zeitlin, is also a musician and worked on the music with New York-based musician and composer Dan Romer. Watching Hushpuppy run toward the screen with Roman candles in each hand while the majestic timbre of trumpets blow hits you right in the gut and fills you with joy.
If the film gets any criticism, it’s mostly from romanticizing or glamorizing Hushpuppy and her father’s condition of poverty. I heard one filmgoer mention after the screening that juxtaposing her eating dog food and setting her trailer on fire, without any adult supervision, was incongruent with the film’s whimsical style. I can see his point, but we’re experiencing these elements of Hushpuppy’s life through her, unspoiled by societal structures: Her voice and actions are a product of what she sees and her interpretations of the adult behavior around her. If her lines seem a bit too weighty or less-than-prosaic, it’s because she’s hearing her daddy and his friends make all these beautiful but ultimately empty remarks. Some people who see the film might use that phrase—“beautiful but ultimately empty”—to describe the film, but they’re missing all the glory and splendor of experiencing the film like a child. It is a folk song, a fairy tale, a fable for tragedy and redemption, innocence and responsibility, survival and assimilation.
Zeitlin founded a grassroots independent filmmaking movement called Court 13 that produced a similarly themed visual poem of a short film called Glory at Sea that acts as a precursor to Beasts, showcasing rural life on the water and surrealist narration and imagery. At only twenty-five minutes, Glory is an abbreviated tale compared to Beasts’s sprawling ninety-minute narrative.
Zeitlin also worked on fellow Wesleyan University Film Studies student and Court 13-founder Ray Tintori’s 2007 film Death to the Tinman, wherein you see influences like David Lynch and Terrence Malick and especially Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz, which Tinman re-imagines. Court 13 is named after a squash court that Benh and his colleagues would use as a film set. It’s interesting that these New York-based filmmakers have a penchant for telling stories in the rural South. Zeitlin even moved to New Orleans in 2008 to film Glory.
Beasts was loosely adapted from a play entitled Juicy and Delicious, described as a bluegrass musical about sex and Southern Food (sounds incredible). The playwright, Lucy Alibar, also has a thing for all things Oz; her play A Friend of Dorothy is about Judy Garland.
Read an interview with the director Benh Zeitlin.