In last year’s Tree of Life, Terence Malick mesmerized audiences with his meditation on the nature of the universe and our passage through it. He encompassed the entirety of time from creation to the rapture, throwing in a bunch of dinosaurs for good measure, in order to weave a tapestry that shows the interconnectedness of life in all its infinite variations. Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature film touches on a lot of similar themes — nature, family, the harmony of life — and also uses a mixture of surrealist imagery, compressing memories, fables, dreams, folklore and imagination in order to achieve an acute, unique visual style. Instead of dinosaurs, he has “aurochs”, mythical beasts that once roamed the earth as a metaphor for our struggle to maintain our precarious control over the earth. But unlike the sprawling Malick film, Zeitlin tells a narrative with such amazing focus and precision of emotion. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a reminder of the power of cinema to transport its audiences physically and emotionally, it is escapism imbued with the highest form of artistry.
Set in the Bayou, the movie centers on a young girl named Hushpuppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis. Much like her small community affectionately called The Bathtub because of its location outside the levee, she is a scrappy, resourceful six-year old who has a precocious self-understanding of her place in the universe. Echoing the mechanical worldview of Hugo Cabret in Hugo, she sees herself as a tiny yet essential piece of a gigantic puzzle. According to her, “the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right”. So she spends her idle time catching birds and other creatures and putting them close to her ear, hoping that she would catch traces of the ethereal life force that flows across all beings speak back to her. One consequence of this philosophy is perceiving the world as a chain of cause and effect, so when a Katrina-like hurricane ravages her home after she throws a tantrum, she blames herself for ruining the balance and sets out to restore the order that was lost. “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.”
It is hard to imagine what caused Hushpuppy to be so possessed with the awareness of the mystical forces that govern our world, but it is easy to claim that it is Wallis’s raw performance that serves as the lifeblood of this film. She has such a commanding presence contained in her tiny frame, all the more made realistic by the fact that she was just a local schoolgirl whom Zeitlin chose her to play the part. Her pout, her energy, her determination — her entire constitution, really – is nothing short of enchanting, and also profoundly moving. Her troublesome relationship with her father Wink, played by another amateur actor named Dwight Henry, rises and falls like the tumultuous weather. There are storms, and there are peaceful, serene calms, and Zeitlin builds it up to an emotional crescendo that is as shattering, and heartbreaking, as the deluge itself.
The Bathtub represents a sort of premodern way of living. It is a racially mixed group of what at first seems like society’s dregs, but there is a charm in their unhurried lifestyles. Everything is built from found materials and wreckage, but life abounds in their makeshift abodes. They have their own set of norms, which include no crying when somebody dies and helping out whoever is in need. Their attachment to their less than idyllic way of life is understandable because of the civic spirit that reside within these people, and without. Again, the interconnectedness of the universe is rendered even more urgent and perceptible when confined to such a narrow space, and it is much a journey of the destruction and rehabilitation of a community than it is of Hushpuppy.
This movie is a constant tug-of-war. It is about the people of the Bathtub fending off modern, bureaucratic institutions intending to “save” them. It is about Hushpuppy trying to tame the beasts that live within her and gain control of herself and the world around her. It is a contest between Hushpuppy and Wink, two people who have the capacity to hurt and love each other the most. It is a movie filled with the most heartwrenching tensions, not least because it tries to mirror life itself in a most piercing way.