“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a harsh, hopeful, tragic, and bold drama/fantasy unlike I have ever seen. It’s divisive film, too, not just a love it or hate tale, but one fully embraced or entirely repelled. This is no easy watch. We follow a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) living -– scraping by, really — with her father, Wink (another newcomer, Dwight Henry), in the shocking squalor of a direly impoverished fishing commune at the southernmost tip of Louisiana.
Distrustful of technology, government, and the modern amenities, the group lives by their own rules. They wish to live alone, to fish and party, the latter often to extreme. Their homes are trashed to the point of “Hoarders,” and the children are unwashed, food is eaten raw, and booze is plentiful. Judge them if you wish, they have no concern for our titles, names, or finger-wagging. Or politics. Yet, every person is family, no matter their skin color. The community is tight, and cares for one another deeply. Each person readily would endanger himself or herself to save another. Then a hurricane barges in and floods the make-shift town, drowning some, and sending others to retreat to the “outside” world. Those that remain survive on a floating make-shift trailer/boat. Life will get more difficult for all, especially Hushpuppy.
Wink and some other men attempt to blow a hole in a levee as they want to reclaim their homes and land from high water, and bury their dead mates as well as their livestock. The desperate, dangerous and darkly comical move brings them that satisfaction, but briefly. Federal officials move in, mandating an evacuation. It’s telling that screenwriters Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin neither condemn nor condone the authorities as it’s a near relief to see Hushpuppy delivered from such poverty.
There’s another tick: Wink is dying. I can only guess from septicemia fueled by long-term alcohol poisoning as the man has a profound drinking problem that sends him away mysteriously for days. Then Hushpuppy -– far wiser than her years, and accustomed to inch-by-inch survival — is left on her own, to cook, clean after herself, and care for the lot’s pigs, chickens, and dogs. She talks to her absent mother, and also chillingly imagines as only a scared, lonely child can, prehistoric beasts breaking free of the Antarctic ice and coming to kill her. (A story of Climate Change has sent her up a stream of paranoia.) These beasts for all intent and purposes are real to not just Hushpuppy, but our eyes as well, and in the final scenes we witness their wrath.
As with the harshest tale of childhood from Dickens and Twain, “Beasts” puts a child through a meat grinder that is difficult to stomach. It’s telling that her most safe, secure moments come later on a floating house of … shall we call it ill repute? See, there I go judging. That is not the place for such an act. Alibar and Zeitlin pull no punches. And Hushpuppy’s struggle feels desperately real. The documentary vibe comes from the film being shot on location with handheld 16-mm cameras, using all nonprofessional actors. In a just world, at the very least, Henry would get an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. The man is a cook by trade. One would not know that watching here.
It’s a shocking, enlightening film to witness, with a final scene that leaves us hanging, and gulping. This fictional tale is a record of a tumultuous life of one smart amazing girl who puts her ears to the chests of animals and family to hear their heartbeats and fears the end of the world in real time. She could be the girl next door, in any neighborhood in America. But she exists in a place no cameras or politicians go, an America never discussed at, say, a multi-billion dollar political National Convention. It’s a hard film to shake, upsetting to the core, and hopeful, and funny, too. I look forward to going back to re-experience this story.
– Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer