dir: Benh Zeitlin
It’ll come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that I don’t always understand the films I watch. I watch a lot of films, but that doesn’t mean I’m any better at deciphering them than anyone else, including and especially you.
Often that lack of understanding infuriates me, and makes me think less of the flick and the people involved, because I blame them for it. Other times it’s just a reason to be bored, which negates any effort to expend any brain power nutting it out because it doesn’t seem worthy of such labours.
Other times that confusion, if that’s what it is, doesn’t matter, and is of a piece with what I’m watching, and instead of causing me to pull away because of it, it allows me to let go, at least a little bit, of the nagging, querulous critic in my head, and just be embraced by the film. Some of my favourite films defy logical, precise, plodding explanation as to everything that happens in it, what it all means, how it happened or why.
I’m not saying that Beasts of the Southern Wild is now one of my favourite films of all time (it’s a pretty long and potentially embarrassing list), but it manages to capture some of the elements that provoke deep feeling in me, or at least it provoked in me some of the feelings that I mentioned previously.
I can’t think of another film like Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is a chaotic, formless, wet hot mess that I can’t begin to explain or justify, but it not a beautiful story in spite of all that, but probably because of it.
Upon hearing some details of it, people will probably write it off as a magic realist take on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and while the references and the allusions are inevitable, I would hazard to guess that it’s not about that, really. Then again, I could be wrong about a whole bunch of things both in life and in this film.
Really, it’s about the fierce love of a father for his daughter, and of a daughter for her father, in a chaotic, dangerous, watery world. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhanè Wallis) is a six-year-old girl living in a strange swampy place in Louisiana the residents call The Bathtub. There’s a levee stopping the high waters from further swamping this below sea level place. Guess what's about to happen, go on.
Is it some mystical wonderland, a magical paradise hidden from the eyes of disbelieving grey normals and muggles the world over? No, it really is a fetid swamp, and Hushpuppy and her alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in abject squalor.
It’s abject squalor to my eyes, but these people, and the lunatics around them, love this place. They love it like nowhere else, and they don’t want to leave it for any reason, not even if a world-destroying storm is on the way.
Hushpuppy is a child. She’s not a precocious child, she doesn’t see the world through wise-beyond-her-years eyes; she’s just a kid, a wildly independent one at that. We don’t know where her mother is, though she thinks of her often, and often calls out to her. Her father told her a story about her mother, saying that upon her daughter’s birth, mother beheld daughter with such joy that her heart almost burst, and she had to swim across the sea for her own safety. So whenever Hushpuppy is feeling particularly lonely, she looks out across the water and sees a flashing light, she’s sure it’s her mother.
The people of the Bathtub are self-reliant, and preach self-reliance at every opportunity. Hushpuppy’s teacher keeps repeating it, and Hushpuppy’s father bellows about it at every opportunity.
He’s not a particularly nice man, and always seems to be drinking, but he’s not the bad man you might dread from one of these stories about the bayou and poverty. He seems to abandon his daughter for no good reason after a 4th of July celebration, and we see her make do without him, despite being so young, and so small.
When he returns, not explaining to her as to why he was gone, but with the viewer being able to figure it out from his clothing (the location, but not the real reason just yet), she acts out in anger, and so does he, violently.
It’s an upsetting scene, but not, again, because of where you dread this is going, but because it’s a mask, a cover for the powerful love he has for her, and the horrible feeling that he doesn’t have enough time to prepare Hushpuppy for a life on her own.
It’s a feeling many of us as parents share, but his motivation is somewhat more pressing. Neither of the two main actors, or any of the other people in the flick are professional actors, which gives their performances a raw, unfiltered edge. That’s not enough to describe just how amazing this little girl is, or her furiously alive father.
The storm approaches, some leave but most stay. Hushpuppy quails in terror as they hunker down in her father’s shack, and she desperately wishes to be comforted by him, but he’s adamant that she has to face it on her own, to instil the courage he demands within her. Not only that, but he shows her what the “right” approach is to facing such a vast enemy: he won’t console her or baby her, but he’ll wade out into the middle of a hurricane to shoot at it with his shotgun while cursing it.
Is that love? Is that the “right” kind of love a parent is supposed to have, or exemplify? How the hell would I know… these characters live differently, in almost unbelievable ways, so I can’t judge them the way I judge thousands of other parents at the schools and playgrounds I frequent with my daughter. These are characters in an almost unbelievable film, but they felt so real to me, so true, and I felt so caught up in their strange lives that I really didn’t have it in me to judge him whichever way.
The entire film rests on Hushpuppy’s face, and the fierceness she brings to performance. She was only six when this was made, and I find that almost unbelievable. Her capacity for embodying emotions is absolutely pure, and in no ways does she ever seem to be mimicking adult behaviour, or someone else’s idea of how she’s meant to be acting. She is, like her father, a force not to be trifled with.
[img_assist|nid=1764|title=You and me against the world, and the giant pig/bulls, kid|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=449|height=274]
The universe knows this, and perhaps fears her even as it contrives to demolish the world around her. Massive flooding follows the storm, but because of the levy separating the Bathtub from the rest of Louisiana, none of the sea water that fills the place can escape. The risen waters refuse to recede. Salt quickly poisons everything. Others may not know what to do, but do you really think a man, A Man like Wink, her elemental father, is going to allow his beloved Bathtub to go out like that.
In the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle, Not Bloody Likely.
I haven’t really touched on the more fantastical element of the story, which is the Coming of the Aurochs. What are aurochs, you say? Well, in this film they’re kind of giant cattle crossed with wild boars, and they were frozen, previously, in the polar ice, saving the rest of the world from their cocky ways and musky odours. But what, with global warming, and guys using moisturising creams and such, the ice has melted, and these giant creatures stampede towards the Bathtub, towards Hushpuppy.
Why? I don’t know. To what purpose? I dunno. What do they add to the story, other than a feeling of approaching, incomprehensible doom? Ummmm… What do they symbolise? Your guess is as good as mine, and you haven’t even seen the flick yet. I’m glad they’re there, though, even though, for me, their presence isn’t ‘magical realism’ or fantasy or anything like that. This is a story about a wild six-year-old girl growing up where she shouldn’t have to grow up facing a fate she shouldn’t have to face, with steely determination. And she does this both because of and in spite of her loving, chaotic father. And these massive creatures are the least of her worries, because she’ll conquer all on her own terms.
The feel of the Bathtub is incredible. It’s not a ‘real’ place, but what they created, with practically no budget, is amazing. It felt and looked like a real place that no-one should have to live in, and it’s not romanticised in any way. There’s the tinkerer’s feel to the place, making do with the refuse of civilisation, adaptive at all costs approach to everything in the Bathtub, which either makes them look like the biggest loonies on the planet, or like a place populated by Louisiana’s most resourceful drunken humans.
I loved this film, but I’m not blind to the flick’s faults. Even for a film filmed on handheld camera, this is all over the place. Parts of it look like it was being filmed by someone sitting on the shoulders of an epileptic who had seizures because he was watching the more frenetic scenes from one of the Jason Bourne flicks on some portable device.
Maybe it doesn’t detract from the film, since the deliberate ‘messiness’ of the cinematography adds to the messy, sweaty, grimy feel of the flick, but it was definitely off-putting, at least at first. Whatever the flick sounds like, it’s not a kid’s flick, or a sugar-coated pink fantasy land that fun park rides and showbags will naturally evolve out of. Eventually, I stopped being bugged by the camerawork because I was so entranced by Hushpuppy and Wink’s performances, but it’s definitely going to be an issue for people. My advice is sit as far away from the screen as possible.
It’s still a beautiful, beautiful film, and despite the critical plaudits, it’s not going to be easy for it to find an audience, because it’s difficult and fairly untethered from plot or formula or the cinematically familiar. It’s most likely like little else you’ve seen before, and that’s both a great and terrible thing, because you might not be up to the challenge.
9 times what else was Elysian Fields going to be other than a brothel out of 10
“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.” – Beasts of the Southern Wild