A South Louisiana Native’s First Take On Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild in theaters now.

WARNING: Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen Beasts of the Southern Wild you probably should wait to watch the movie before reading this.

As I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, I swelled with pride at the sight of my south Louisiana homeland and its residents portrayed on the silver screen in an accurate manner – perhaps outgunned by Mother Nature and other manmade forces but resilient and awash with joie de vivre to the bitter end.

I also marveled at the realization I had never seen anything like Beasts of the Southern Wild inside a movie theater, or a home theater, for that matter. Not only did it portray bayou people in a responsible fashion, instead of bumbling buffoons with cartoonish accents, but it starred a young black girl as a heroine and focused on the underwritten dynamic of a single black father “raising” his daughter. I used quotation marks around the word raising because at times it appeared Hushpuppy was the one raising her dad.

Eventually on-screen events snapped me out of my proud stupor. Specifically, images of glaciers breaking off into the sea set off alarms in my head. I heard prior to seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild that it had a global warming tie-in but did not know to what extent. Well, it’s hard to miss. The point director Benh Zeitlin tried to get across – global warming is destroying the Bathtub – failed to resonate with me. That’s being too kind. It felt wrong and slanted and hit with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head.

Louisiana’s coast started eroding well before global warming became a political hot potato. Yes, I realize the idea that global warming has been the driving force behind erosion provides the film its zeitgeist appeal but it’s an appeal that is rooted in falsehood. Gradually disappearing barrier islands don’t make for a sexy film, I realize., but the heavy-handed global warming associations served as unwelcome distractions.

Zeitlin and crew got a lot right, though. It should also be noted my expectations for this movie were in the clouds. Therefore, if it reads like I am overly critical of this film it’s because I wanted this movie to be every bit as good as film critics declared it, and then some.

Pieces of it were.

Quvenzhane Wallis (Hushpuppy) was a wunderkind. She sparkled on the screen like a Fourth of July fireworks display over the Mississippi River. It’s hard to imagine a 6-year-old newcomer nailing a more nuanced role. Throughout the movie, Hushpuppy wrestles with the loss of her mother, her father’s alcoholism and abusive ways, her homeland’s eventual destruction, and much more. She is no angel. She burns down her trailer and tells her father she hates him and wishes him dead. Yet, she is easy to root for despite her transgressions. Such is her youthful enthusiasm.

Wallis’ on-screen father Dwight Henry also stood out as a man trying to do right by his daughter, his people, and his way of life while battling severe demons. While Hushpuppy’s innocence and naivete shield her from the true ramifications of the events around her, her father has no such refuge, except for the bottle. The father-daughter interactions ranged from humorous and heartfelt (i.e., “Who’s the man?” scene) to heartbreaking (i.e., his desire to keep her from seeing him suffer toward the end).

The pre-hurricane scene where Bathtub residents sit on their front porches drinking beer, defiant and buzzed, also made an impression. I have encountered this while reporting in south Louisiana. It was a small detail but a rich one, nonetheless. Also: The scenes of desperation and despair in the evacuation shelter reminded me of ones I reported from. Those three or four minutes on-screen related something important. Man’s dignity is at stake here. Not just his home or anything else material that people in the cities where this movie is being shown spend their days trying to attain. The characters here are focused on different pursuits – living off the land, cultivating a sense of community, and preserving a legacy for future generations, etc.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not an uplifting movie, in spite of what I have heard some say. Death is the characters’ constant companion, amid all of their pursuits. Not only physical death but cultural and communal death too. It’s a heavy film. Even the ending lacks resolution for all the sadness. It’s just an invitation to more sadness in the future.

What this movie has is spirit, kinetic energy, heart, etc. It is beautifully shot and the performances of the two leads are dynamic. However, the global warming message and the racial harmony hit false notes for me. Either Zeitlin didn’t pick up on the racial unease that exists in the southernmost bayous between whites, blacks, and Native Americans or he chose to ignore them. Perhaps tackling race issues in a global warming picture would have been far too ambitious.

I also puzzled over parts of the film’s story which felt jumbled or lacking purpose. The film’s first half resembled a collage more than a plot-driven device, leaving me feeling lost in a world I know. I have read reviews of Beasts of the Southern Wild where reviewers compared this aspect of the film to Tree of Life, a movie I disliked. It’s hard to make abstraction and literalism feel cohesive. I don’t feel like either movie did it particularly well. Two days later, I am unsure whether I would recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild to someone not born in the Bathtub region of south Louisiana. I want to chant “Beast it” along with everyone else lauding the film but I am conflicted.

Addendum: I am seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild this Friday in Portland. Perhaps a second viewing will sit better with me and unlock the film’s greatness. I’ll write about it either way. (Ed. Note: You can read about my second viewing here.)


11 thoughts on “A South Louisiana Native’s First Take On Beasts Of The Southern Wild”

  1. I’m not a bright boy but it never occurred to me that Zeitlin was trying to say that global warming is drowning the Bathtub.

    I thought he was saying that global warning is a world-ending disaster that’s unleashing mythical beasts compelled to meet the only spirit animal that matches their ferocity, little Hushpuppy, just as she is dealing with a different man-made disaster that happens to be ending her little world.

    Now, why I think your interpretation and mine are different puzzles me, even reading them back just now. But I do.

    But then, I also liked the Tree of Life.

    * * *

    Meanwhile, Sabree and I have been discussing why he chose to make the protagonists of this movie mostly black or white, when we all know that most residents of that island are Native American. My theory is that the “otherness” of the Biloxi-Chitimacha would just be too much to overcome — people not from there already think the environment is completely made up, so just imagine if you were asking them to identify with a race they had hardly ever seen before. In other words, it’s remarkable (and unusual, sadly) that a movie with a young African-American girl as its hero is connecting to so many people without being dismissed as a “black” movie — but that it couldn’t have escaped being an “Indian” movie had the real Billiots, Verdins, Naquins, Aucoins and Chaissons been the locals cast in it.

    It’s too bad, because thematically the fact that the end of this island likely spells the end of an ethnic group that could never even get federally recognized in the first place fits the movie even better. On the other hand, it’s a fable, not a documentary.

    1. Hey Rob!
      I nominate your comment for the mythical Best Cajun Tomato Comment of 2012 Award. It’s that good. Sadly, this award, like most journalism or pseudo journalism awards, does not come with a cash prize.

      I think the first distinction you made is an important one – global warming impacting the world the Bathtub inhabits vs. global warming impacting the Bathtub itself and thus causing the flood depicted in the film. I failed to make that distinction while watching Beasts the first time. I took Zeitlin’s message to be global warming is doing terrible things to the planet, of which the Bathtub is one example. It’s possible I missed a snippet of Hushpuppy’s dialogue or some other trigger that alerted the viewer of the distinction as you appraised it. I’ll watch for this distinction on Friday when I see the movie again.

      Your second paragraph brings up layers that I had not considered – namely, how a character’s inner world can be at odds with their outer world, and how conflicts in one can mirror conflicts in the other. This is interesting but I am still having trouble digesting this idea. Even as I replay in my mind the scene where Hushpuppy stares down the mythical feral hogs (lorax sp?) I have trouble deducing what her victory means in the grand scheme of the Bathtub. She’s still an orphan and the Bathtub is destined to flood again. Only next time she won’t have her father to rely on.

      You make great points about the ethnicity of the film’s protagonists. I think Zeitlin purposely chose to bypass the racial dynamic for the reasons you mentioned. Even so, the racial harmony depicted in the Bathtub did not sit well with me. It’s too much of a Utopian dream. Then again, you are right in noting Beasts is not a documentary.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      1. Yup, the Bathtub will flood again, ultimately washing away forever, and more than likely the aurochs will end up back in some ice. Or maybe mud this time.

        Here’s the victory as I see it. One day people are going to tell stories about Hushpuppy, king of the Bathtub, and draw her story on the walls of their cardboard boxes, just as they get tattoos of the mighty aurochs.

        I guess for some people, that bravery in the face of inevitable loss is victory enough. Has to be, because that’s all you’re getting. And if that doesn’t suit you, there’s plenty of room on the dry side of the levee, where people be buying their food in stores and shit.

        But none of that is new. What is new, and what you nailed really well, is how awesome it is to see someone give life down the bayou the real respect it’s due.

        1. Not sure where I got lorax from. Possibly Dr. Seuss?

          So … since everything is fleeting the best we can ask for is to be remembered? How does a 6-year-old have that type of insight? Can a 6-year-old have that type of insight? Maybe those questions are irrelevant. Maybe all that matters is I, as a viewer, am in awe of Hushpuppy’s youthful spirit and wise beyond her years perspective.

          Your interpretations made me view the film in a different light. Specifically, the nuance Zeitlin employed. I thank you for this. Next thing I know you will convince me old Animal Collective is more enjoyable than new Animal Collective. Nah, that will never happen.

  2. I saw the movie last night and was searching for insight and I am glad I stumbled upon your blog. It cleared up a few things for me.

    I had to comment on a couple things. On the racial perspective, I think it is interesting that he chose to show the people as black and whit and not native but not knowing the area, my take on it is that it is just easier to do and the fact that they all got along so well meant to me that to the people of the bathtub had solidarity amongst themselves despite skin color and since I had no other frame of reference that is the way it played for me.

    The global warming issue was completely different for me as well. I saw an ignorant but passionate woman teaching children her own view of the world and this one tidbit of information captured the imagination of hush puppy and she simply pictured this scene in her mind. That also led to the arrival of the Auroch’s arrival and when she stared it down, she was staring down the entire outside world as an inhabitant of the bathtub. Her father got to see that and he felt that he had taught her well and she would thrive and continue to live in the bathtub the way he had been teaching her.

  3. I just saw this movie tonight and really enjoyed it; though I had lots of questions. This site helped answer some of those, so thanks! It’s especially helpful to read discussion from the place where the movie is based.
    I’d also recommend reading an interview with the Director from the Atlantic Magazine–lots of powerful insights. I understand the male lead ‘Wink’ was on Tavis Smiley’s tv talk show recently. I think this is one of the first films in a long while that is deserving of the praise being heaped upon it. IMHO, it juxtaposes myth, reality and the Big BIG story of our place in the cosmos with the harsh often violent nature of life that it just seemed so fresh: like a hard slap in the face.
    Made me think of some of the work of MelodySheep, a YouTube artist who makes physicists sing, literally. This work also juxtaposes violence against beauty, albeit without the folklore/myth.

    1. Thanks for reading, John! I agree with your comment about the juxtaposition at play in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, notably the beauty of nature clashing with the violence of nature. I love Zeitlin’s brand of organic storytelling. Less studio flash, more human emotion. The movie overwhelms me in a manner that caught me off-guard.

  4. Obviously I need to view Beasts again. You guys absorbed much more than I managed, which I’ll chalk up partly to seeing it Thursday night while nearing exhaustion from a brutal work week (and needing to get home to pound out a final couple of items and proofread an issue) and partly to being bedazzled and charmed by a largely accurate depiction of the Bathtub! I left vaguely pleased but wondering about much of what I’d just seen. I was able comment to someone who asked about it that this was the antithesis of typical beautiful people and places moviemaking.

    I guess the beauty explored here is inner rather than outer, which generally is superficial anyway. There was a lot of ugly in the outer that Zeitlin presented. All the garbage and mud and worn out, barely there clothes and furnishings were downer stuff. But somehow Hushpuppy and even damaged Wink won’t give up, which uplifted me up.

    With a push-start from Cajun Tomato and Robert Morris, I can see and understand a lot more now. But I really need to see “Beasts” again when I’m rested and more alert. And maybe in a different theater; I don’t know how much of the dark and muddy visual and auditory experience I had came the director and how much of it was perhaps the aging ‘art’ theater projectionist’s equipment and skill level. I think a repeat viewing will present more of a story of the human spirit’s ability to overcome and carry on living the life one desires despite the various ugly realities that low and lazy human nature creates.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mark! This movie challenges people to reevaluate and reassess what is beautiful and/or meaningful in their lives, and why. That Wink and Hushpuppy live in squalor in the Bathtub, and yet want to continue living there, is a foreign concept for most people, I would imagine. This movie presents the viewer with a deeper appreciation for what home is. Home is love, a way of life, a culture. It’s fascinating how much the characters believe in their lifestyle and the goodness of the Bathtub. They place value in the land, the water, each other, instead of the materials beyond the levee. The movie’s message, the more I consider it, amazes me with its poignancy.

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