The Oscar nominations came out today, and among the Best Picture nominees were some major studio, prestige picture releases: Lincoln, Les Miserables, Argo. And then there was Beasts of the Southern Wild, tiny-budget indie film, starring no one you’ve ever heard of (in fact, for the most part, starring non-actors). A first film by a fairly recent film school grad, Benh Zeitlin, a complete unknown director, co-written by Lucy Alibar, a girl he knew from high school, produced by Court 13, an independent film-making collective. Who doesn’t love stories like this: a film without major studio backing or financing or really much of anything going for it at all gets nominated for Best Picture, basically for one reason only: it’s really good.
And it is, really good. But it may be a kind of love-it-or-hate it thing. It’s visually stunning, but it’s very strange, the kind of film where you look at the plot summary on its IMDB page and think: ‘well, they got that wrong.’ Although, also, of course, maybe they didn’t.
So let me see if I can get it right. It’s set in the ramshackle squalor of a town just outside the New Orleans levees, called by its residents Bathtub. A six year old named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Willis) lives in Bathtub with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). The town is entirely built of odds and ends; Wink drives a boat made from a truck bed and some oil drums, and they live in what appear to be abandoned trailers reinforced with corrugated steel. Wink is ill from some undisclosed malady (I wondered if it might be malaria), and Hushpuppy has to fend for herself a lot of the time. She cooks on a gas stove, which she lights with a blowtorch (carefully donning a football helmet before igniting). But the people of Bathtub do take care of each other. They seem to have massive town parties with some frequency. And the children attend school, taught by Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), who teaches them that all creatures are meat, themselves included. And when Hushpuppy, at a town party, wants to eat crab with a knife, her father leads their friends in chants of ‘beast beast beast,’ encouraging her to eat with her hands and teeth.
Hushpuppy can talk to animals; spends a lot time holding, and listening to, birds. Mostly, she says, they tell her that they’re scared, or that they have to poop. She’s also obsessed with aurochs, mythical beasts taught her by Miss Bathsheba. And we see, from time to time, aurochs break free from the Antarctic ice that imprisons them, and head towards Bathtub. And they’re huge, monstrous, tusked wild-boar-like creatures, purely frightening.
We see the world of Bathtub, in other words, through Hushpuppy’s eyes. And as such, I’m not sure it matters how much of what we see is real. It’s all real to her. Some critics have called the film ‘magical realism,’ which does sort of work. But I’m not sure the degree to which we’re meant to see the world of the film as magical, except in the sense that it’s a child’s world, and small children believe in magic.
The central relationship in the film is between Wink and Hushpuppy, father and daughter, and it’s a complicated and frightening relationship. He’s desperately ill, and desperate in other ways too; filled with rage and self-loathing, but also a leader in the community, a hard drinker, but also a man whose love for his daughter is fierce and undying. At one point, he slaps her. She’s furious, and hits him back. And he sinks to the ground, despairing and in pain.
A huge storm (Katrina?) nearly drowns Bathtub. They hold a funeral for their dead, a celebration. But Miss Bathsheba tells them that their water has been poisoned by salt, and that everything, animals and plants alike, will soon die. And their world does begin to die, immersed in brackish, filthy, poisoned water. And Wink engages in an act of terrorism, in order to drain the Bathtub. And succeeds, but death lingers on.
I spent the first half of the film wondering where the authorities were. In a town so filled with poverty, could a safety net be tossed them? From whom? But when authority figures do show up, they’re again terribly frightening, white coated doctors and orderlies, probably kind enough, but terrifying to Hushpuppy. She notices that the sickest people get ‘plugged into the wall.’ She doesn’t understand monitors–she thinks this is how her friends are being drained of life. She and Wink engineer an escape. But Bathtub is ruined, and Wink is nearly dead.
So Hushpuppy decides that she needs to search for her mother. I imagined this child, wearing her plastic boots and coral panties, wandering around bustling New Orleans. But instead, she looks out to sea, and finds a tiny shimmering something. She and some of her school friends take a make-shift raft out to it. And find a floating crabshack/whorehouse, and waiting for them there, their mothers.
I don’t know, but I believe, that Hushpuppy does find her mother (Jovan Hathaway), and that she receives from her a last meal to give her father as a kind of sacrament before he dies. A last supper, of alligator meat. Hushpuppy does finally and fearlessly face down the aurochs, and they bow to her, and agree to leave her alone. I mean, we see all those things happen, but the film is ambiguous enough to make us not quite sure what we’re supposed to accept as either real or the product of an overactive childish imagination. But that’s also true of the entire film.
But it’s breathtaking. It’s so lovely. Wallis is a force of nature, astonishing as Hushpuppy–when she faces down the auroch, you’re more afraid for it than for her. Dwight Henry, a Louisiana man who had never acted before, and by all accounts, has no intention of doing so again, gives a complex and rich and powerful performance as Wink. There are images in the film that still haunt me: Hushpuppy running through fireworks, holding sparklers in each hand. Wink firing a gun at the storm, giving battle to the elements. And a scene where Wink teaches her how to fish. You lean over the side of the boat, dangle one hand in the water, let the fish approach it, and pluck them out of the water, easy as can be. Still don’t know how they did that. And Hushpuppy’s one memory of her mother; half-naked, shooting an alligator. As she sums it up twice, early and late in the film: “in a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”
It’s a beautiful, magical film. The music, by Ben Romer and Zeitlin, is as haunting as the filmmaking. (I want that soundtrack). It’s certainly a strange film, though, and audiences weaned on Hollywood narrative may well find it inaccessible. At times, it feels more like a documentary than a narrative film, for example. And I know some critics have found its overt ‘all things are connected, man’ moralizing off-putting. I didn’t. I was enraptured throughout.