By Don Simpson | July 10, 2012
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writers: Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Amber Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Nicholas Clark, Joseph Brown, Henry D. Coleman, Kaliana Brower, Philip Lawrence, Hannah Holby, Jimmy Lee Moore, Jovan Hathaway
Deep in the bayou of the southern Delta, an untamed wilderness of extreme poverty exists on the forgotten side of a levee. A hurricane has rendered most of the living spaces uninhabitable (at least as far as government authorities are concerned). Public utilities no longer exist, creating a back-to-basics post-apocalyptic universe. The few surviving inhabitants of this area — known affectionately as The Bathtub — have been forced to make due with what they’ve got; they have acclimated to their new way of life.
There is a recurring myth of mammals from the Ice Age called aurochs becoming freed by melting glaciers and coming to The Bathtub (in reality, aurochs became extinct during the 17th century thanks to over-hunting, the destruction of their natural habitat, and climatic change). Yes, the inhabitants of The Bathtub believe that the glaciers are melting due to global warming. How could they not? Global warming is precisely what created their world.
There are no televisions and there is no news in The Bathtub. The rest of the world is of no concern of The Bathtub. Religion, race and gender do not matter. Murder and thievery are non-existent. (It seems that this society’s only vice is alcohol.) The Bathtub is a place of peaceful coexistence. It is as if the natural catastrophe (Hurricane Katrina) that created this place, also catapulted this society into the final stage of communism: a classless, stateless system based on common ownership and free-access in which individuals possess the freedom to develop their own capacities and talents. I would argue that their newly found freedom from capitalism has actually made their lives easier, not harder.
One such inhabitant is six-year-old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who considers The Bathtub to be “the prettiest place on Earth.” Hushpuppy has been told that her mother “swam away,” so she has been left in the care of her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Wink is all about self-reliance (and inebriation). He teaches Hushpuppy about toughness and survival with tough-love; he wants Hushpuppy to grow up to become a man (that might not be possible for most girls in the real world, but it seems like a perfectly reasonable expectation in The Bathtub). Occasionally, Hushpuppy is forced to take care of herself (and their animals) because her father has a knack for disappearing. She even has her own “house,” across the way from her father’s place, where she makes cat food stew whenever her father is not around to cook up a chicken.
Just like any six-year-old would, Hushpuppy often escapes the reality of her situation by delving deep into her wild imagination. To Hushpuppy, the Bathtub is a magical universe where humans live in peaceful harmony with animals. Hushpuppy can even hear animals talk.
All of The Bathtub’s creatures great and small are threatened with possible extinction when a beastly storm rears its ugly head. The next day, as the adults of The Bathtub awaken from their drunken stupors, they discover that The Bathtub is once again submerged. Wink and Hushpuppy travel around the waterscape in a truck bed made buoyant by empty oil drums; other surviving families have converted their ramshackle houses into arks. Due to this latest flood, their days are now numbered. Salt water threatens the future of The Bathtub, because living off the land is no longer an option. Besides, the government has been forcibly evacuating the inhabitants, placing them in shelters (which seem to be nothing more than bureaucratic nightmares) on the other side of the levee.
The feature-length debut of director Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild was adapted by Lucy Alibar and Zeitlan from Alibar’s original stage play, Juicy and Delicious. The film is a masterful blend of neo-realism, magic realism, Southern Gothic and children’s fantasy. Beasts of the Southern Wild is told from the childlike perspective of Hushpuppy with wandering eyes wide open engulfing the natural magnificence of the world. This is important to note — especially for those who wish to pick apart the plot for not being realistic enough — because the film is essentially a cautionary fairy tale. Beasts of the Southern Wild never once purports to exist in our world; instead, like any good fantasy or science fiction story, it functions as an otherworldly critique of our reality.
As dire and depressing as this post-apocalyptic land of perverse poverty sounds, The Bathtub retains the wistfulness and purity of a child’s playground. While most cinematic representations of post-apocalyptic worlds are hopeless and fearful, Beasts of the Southern Wild possesses ever-present feelings of hope and positiveness (not unlike Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). Alibar and Zeitlan show us a world that has been forced to press the reset button due to climate change. (We are constantly made aware that we did this to ourselves.) Centuries of industrialization and technological innovation have been nullified, leaving humankind on equal footing with nature in their quest for survival, and humankind seems to be so much better for it.
Quvenzhané Wallis was five-years-old when she was cast and seven when the film was finished. Like most of the cast members, Wallis had never acted before; yet, in the history of cinema, no one in her age group has ever commanded the screen as she does. Despite the sheer brilliance of the other aspects of Beasts of the Southern Wild — the cinematography (Ben Richardson), the score (Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin), the production design (Alex DiGerlando) — this film would not be one of the best films of 2012 (the film has already won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Caméra d’Or at Cannes) without Wallis. But while I am hopeful that she will garner quite a few Best Actor nods come awards season, let’s not put too much pressure on the kid. If Hushpuppy is the only role Wallis ever plays, she is still destined to go down in history books with this unique and unforgettable film.