Mark Reviews Movies

Beasts of the Southern Wild


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality)

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 6/27/12 (limited); 7/6/12 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 4, 2012

Life in "the Bathtub," a swampy island in southern Louisiana, moves to its own rhythm. The people are entirely self-sustained, raising any animals they are able to and eating them whenever they've had their fill of shellfish or as the need arises. They celebrate more holidays there than anywhere else in the world, or at least that's what the locals say. Beasts of the Southern Wild opens with images of such joy—a parade across the island followed by children and adults running through the woods with fireworks, sending sparks and balls of light into the nighttime air.

Everyone in the community watches out for each other whenever they can. It's the most important rule of life, as one puts it: "Take care of those smaller and sweeter than you."

There is—as there always is—a flip side to life in the Bathtub. The people live in abject poverty. Whatever homes and businesses they have are rundown shacks or trailers. Our first glimpse of the home of the film's central character sees it raised about 10 feet in the air. There is no aesthetic purpose to this decision; it is a matter of necessity. At any time, the waters could rise. A storm is sure to hit, the locals say repeatedly. It has happened before, and, surely, it will happen again. The teacher at the school—a single room on a dock—tells the children that the polar ice caps are melting. One day, the entirety of the Bathtub will be underwater.

This should be a reason for communal depression or exodus. It is not.  When a storm does come, some folks run for the mainland, but others stay behind. When relief workers arrive to tell those lingering that they must evacuate, the remaining locals fight tooth and nail to stay. This is home, and no mainlander is going to tell them how to live. Those mainlanders, after all, don't know the meaning of living, what with their luxuries of grocery stores where food is wrapped up in plastic and levees that keep the water from entering their towns, leaving it all for the people of the Bathtub to manage.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a 6-year-old girl who probably knows more about life than men and women 10 times her age living outside the Bathtub. Her father Wink (Dwight Henry) raises her on her own, although she doesn't need much in terms of raising. She has her own trailer home—a few yards from where her dad lives—and cooks meals using a stovetop, which she lights with a flamethrower. Dad disappears occasionally, and the only question is whether or not he will be gone long enough that Hushpuppy will need to eat her pets.

Hushpuppy's mother is gone; she "swam away," the little girl tells us during the course of her impeccably worded narration (Screenwriters Benh Zeitlin, who also directed the film, and Lucy Alibar make her seem at once worldly and naïve by juxtaposing the content of her thoughts with the language she uses to articulate them). This is neither a euphemism nor is it hyperbole. There are not many ways to get around the island, let alone leave it. Wink has made a boat out of the bed of a pickup truck. If mom decided to leave, she would need to swim.

Mom is an ethereal presence in their lives. Hushpuppy imagines her sitting at the table, complimenting her daughter and talking in soft, dulcet tones. The girl calls out to her repeatedly whenever she's in trouble and imagines that a faraway lighthouse is her mother's new home. Wink remembers his daughter's mother a bit differently: a beautiful, seemingly magical warrior of a woman, who never needed to turn on a stove because she would ignite it simply by her touch and who killed an alligator that got too close to him when he was sleeping off his drunken shyness around her (We do not see her face clearly in these flashbacks, and, here, we see only her lower half, covered by underwear and in blood).

Elsewhere in Hushpuppy's imagination are aurochs—massive bull-like creatures from an olden time that have, in her mind (and maybe more than that), been awakened by the melting of the poles. They are uncaring, as willing to eat their own kin as they are to destroy anything in their path. With as many destructive forces as there are in her world (She says the universe is connected and that any little thing can "make it busted;" she fears she might be partially responsible for the eventual turmoil), it's little surprise that she would envision such things.

Her father is a drunk, who runs out of his trailer during the film's central storm to rail at it with a shotgun, and is ill ("My blood is eating itself," he says, in a turn of phrase that is about as perfect a description as any) that has weakened him and caused the veins on his chest to blacken. He repeatedly scolds his daughter and even hits her on one occasion.

We initially designate him an abusive father. Alibar and Zeitlin's screenplay has such a firm understanding of these characters that the film not only manages to eventually sympathize with the man but also allows us a deeper understanding of his motivations. His anger with Hushpuppy—enough to strike her—wells from frustration at himself. "It's my job to make sure you don't die," he tells her at one point (Another line that, like his description of his illness, is so simple that it achieves profundity), and, in his mind, he will fail her when he inevitability dies before she is old enough to care for herself. His behavior toward her is all a way to prepare her for what is and will continue to be a harsh life in a cruel and unforgiving place (Late in the film, during a heartrending flashback, Hushpuppy recalls that she "can count on two fingers" the number of times she's been embraced).

Wink calls his daughter by male nicknames and tells her that one day she'll be "King of the Bathtub."  During a brief respite at the local bar, where a group of the Bathtub's denizens have gathered to avoid the now-flooded area, a man hands Hushpuppy a knife to break open a crab to eat; her father insists that she instead "beast it," or crack it open with her bare hands. Only a certain type of person can survive in the Bathtub (Survival is key, but it's only part of the multifaceted way of life on display here); Hushpuppy's teacher (Gina Montana) likens them to early cavemen, who "didn't cry like pussies" when their own children were killed in front of them.

Here is a unique place, filled with characters whose infinite sadness is matched only by their resolve to endure by any means necessary. Beasts of the Southern Wild is an astonishingly astute and heartfelt tale of growing up far before one's time.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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