Once there was a Hushpuppy, who lived with her Daddy in The Bathtub.
She was happy. She had her own house, and her animals, and she had friends and a life in the bayou. She was sad sometimes, because her Momma had left. But for the most part, she smiled. And she knew that there was nowhere as good as The Bathtub, and that she never wanted to leave.
And then a storm came, a big one with a cruel woman’s name, and it turned out that Hushpuppy’s life was about to change forever.
Benh Zeitlin’s ragged and lovely piece of magical realism takes elements of post-apocalpse fiction, Southern Gothic and mythology and mashes them together with hot sauce and plenty of spice to produce a rich and satisfying stew. All the focus has been on Quvenzhané Wallis and her brave, open performance as Hushpuppy. But there’s a lot to nourish you in Beasts Of The Southern Wild apart from that.
Ben Richardson’s luminous, fluid photography shows the world of The Bathtub in all its grimy, shabby beauty. His constantly roving camera picks out details, grabs fleeting moments of joy, horror and despair. There’s grain and grit in the images that he shoots. It’s a documentary aesthetic, a grab-and-go ethos that’s a universe away from the sterile, over-CGed pictures of most contemporary fantasy cinema.
Fantastic fiction is, at heart, a commentary on the times in which it was created. The film addresses big issues and contemporary concerns, of climate change, of the povertyquake that is devastating America. It’s telling that the strangest and most alien environment we see is a hospital and crisis centre on the wrong side of the levee from The Bathtub. Hushpuppy’s home is a place apart, and it’s the forceful reunion of this naive paradise with harsh reality that is the driving force behind the film.
Hurricane Katrina is the true monster that haunts Beasts Of The Southern Wild, even more so than the porcine aurochs that thunder towards a final confrontation with Hushpuppy (after, appropriately, breaking out of crumbling icebergs). Both as signal and agent of change, as villain and plot device, Katrina forces Hushpuppy to face an uncertain future–but one she will approach with the same fearlessness with which she stares down the aurochs. She remains Hushpuppy, and the Bathtub, however much it has been changed, remains her home.
Brave, funny, lovely and fearless, Beasts Of The Southern Wild illuminates the magic in the everyday. As allegory, fantasy and comment on an America reeling before forces that it struggles to understand, Hushpuppy’s story is an unalloyed delight.