The apparent randomness of some of the scenes in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012; dir. Benh Zeitlin), the ways in which they seem haphazardly stitched together, as if they’re scenes from home movies, makes me wonder how one could write a screenplay for this film. In ways it seems totally random, built of stuff from the sub- or unconscious, from dreams and hallucinated images, yet there is a clear plot. Just not the kind that logic and cause and effect necessarily dictate. It includes the father’s illness; the melting of the polar ice caps and the aurochs the melting ice sets free; a little girl’s search for her mother and her fear of her father’s death; how a cataclysmic storm changes the lives of the Bathtub residents. The storm is a metaphor, mixed up with the global warming theme, of incipient and fatal change in the world, and of how we must all deal with and finally submit to it. These are born of the imagination of the six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the main character and the film’s point of view.
There’s no doubt that this film was planned, made with intent, yet part of its achievement lies in how it seems not to show the artifice of its construction.
Hushpuppy’s oracular pronouncements sometimes seem too precocious--self-consciously written for a six-year-old girl to pronounce. For example, “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right” and “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece . . . the whole universe will get busted.” Has Hushpuppy been reading Emerson? Hushpuppy reminds me of the 12-year old girl Nasia in David Gordon Greene’s George Washington (2000), with all her worldly pronouncements on life and human character. And of the narrator-character played by Linda Manz in Terrence Mallick’s Days of Heaven (1978). (These films are all part of the same current).
The people of the Bathtub are the ultimate social outcasts. They live on the other side of the levees, exposed to the sea and natural elements and to the pollution that drains in from the nearby city after the storm. The inhabitants of the Bathtub might be said to live in a post-racial world. They’re white and black, young and old, Cajun and Creole and African American. They’re excluded not by race but by environment and heritage, by economic status, which is no status at all. Their exclusion binds them together, survivors on the margins scrabbling to make their ways. We never see the nearby city of New Orleans, only oil refineries and levees that wall the Bathtub residents off from the city or vice versa. Race does not seem an obvious issue in this film. This may be because the film is set entirely outside the conventional world in which race makes any kind of sense.
People are not the only castoffs in the Bathtub. The filmmakers have somehow managed to assemble the most amazing conglomeration of random junk I’ve ever seen—all the junk cast out by the civilized world on the other side of the levee. Rusting cars and shards of metals, old signs advertising one product or another, bedframes, trash, stoves, ropes, trailers and houses. Hushpuppy’s father Wink (Dwight Henry) navigates his way around the Bathtub in a boat made from the remnants of an old truck. The junk signifies the liminal world that the characters of Bathtub inhabit. It signifies the order or lack of order in their lives.
The mother who has died or run off is a defining absence for Wink and Hushpuppy. The little girl often speaks to her mother, calling out to her to come back. Wink never speaks of his vanished wife with bitterness, and it’s clear that her absence is a hole in his life as well.
The film takes the child’s perspective and therefore views the world in simple and even primal terms. The teacher’s lessons about the difficulty of life, about global warming, about the extinct aurochs who, the teacher says, once seized children as prey, get wrapped up, along with her father’s illness, in Hushpuppy’s apprehension of the world. The film is like a fairy take, serving for Hushpuppy the functions that Bruno Bettelheim in “The Uses of Enchantment” assigns to the fairy tale: “In order to master the psychological problems of growing up—becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation—a child needs to understand what is going on within [her] conscious self so that [she] can also cope with that which goes on in [her] unconscious. [She] can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of [her] unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams. . . . the child must be helped to make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of [her] feelings. [She] needs ideas on how to bring [her] inner house in order, and on that basis to create order in [her] life. . . . The child finds this meaning through fairy tales.”
It’s difficult to tell where the film ends and the real world begins. In the final scene Hushpuppy triumphantly leads the remaining inhabitants away from the Bathtub, towards civilization. Where are they all headed? What life lies ahead for them? One image in particular suggests the disconnection that lies ahead for Hushpuppy and the modern world—in the refugee center to which they’re evacuated, and where her father has been sent for treatment, we see her wearing a light blue dress, standing among other similarly dressed children, being spoken to with disapproval and exasperation by a teacher or counselor. She looks entirely out of place, disempowered.
The film takes its own time. Not especially slow-paced, it’s not fast either. It wanders, sometimes, and veers off course before coming back again. Yet to claim that it veers off course implies that off course is necessarily off course. These wanderings are all part of some larger plan. There are remarkable non-sequiturs. My favorite comes after Hushpuppy and her compatriots have managed to drag her father back to the Bathtub from the evacuation center. He’s clearly dying. Suddenly the girl looks off into the distance and begins swimming out to sea with some of her younger friends, towards a distant light that she has identified throughout the film with a place where her mother might be. This turns out to be one of the most interesting, surprising, and crucial episodes in the film.
There’s also a clearly intended ambiguity and indeterminacy throughout. There are many things we don’t know, some because they lie outside the immediate scope of the film, others because they‘re simply not revealed. Is Hushpuppy’s mother dead? What is killing her father? Is the woman she meets out at the whorehouse in the Gulf her mother? Is that Hurricane Katrina that passes over early in the film, flooding and permanently unsettling life in the Bathtub? These matters remain unrevealed and unsettled because, I think, we’re not supposed to think in the worldly sorts of terms that provide explanations and justifications where they’d prove unneeded, irrelevant.
The actors in this film are largely inexperienced. Dwight Henry has never appeared in a film before—he runs a cafe in New Orleans seventh ward. The six-year-old Wallis is also inexperienced. One might argue that she has a great career ahead of her. I’m not sure this is true. She plays an extraordinary and amazing six year old. I don’t think she was acting--she was simply being herself. (Both she and Henry are currently featured in a film directed by Steve McQueen, now in production, Twelve Years a Slave). Virtually all the actors have no acting experience. The cast is clearly a found cast.
We might see Beast as allegory. The father’s illness and death, the mother’s disappearance, the aurochs, the melting polar ice, the flood that’s coming—the film’s about apocalyptic and personal catastrophe.