When Winter’s Bones (Debra Granik, 2010) meets Buñuel. When myth and folktales meet grim reality. Welcome to The Bathtub: a swampland cut off from the rest of southern Louisiana by a long wall of levees that a group of free-spirited people, rowdy and uneducated but in solidarity one to another, dares to call home. It’s the unwelcoming, wild, lyrical, and surreal world of Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012).
They live with the discards of the industrial, more affluent neighboring universe, in their makeshift dwellings and boats made of repurposed pick-up truck beds. They live among the animals that they eventually eat – a repetitive supper of grilled chicken, eaten with their hands, shared with their dogs. They drink and party but have strong ethical codes: don’t let anyone who’s in trouble down.
The voice-over narration of a six-year old girl, Hushpuppy, takes us through this poor, ravaged but defiant community. She lost her mother. She was so beautiful, her father tells her, that the stove self-ignited when she walked into the kitchen. Wink, Hushpuppy’s father, is often drunk and often neglectful but loves her dearly. If sometimes he seems abusive, it’s because his priority is to teach his little girl how to survive in the unruly isolation of The Bathtub once the mysterious, fatal disease he knows he carries in his blood will have consumed him.
Like many of the cast members, Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry, as Wink, had never acted before. They have the raw power of the untrained artists. Which the Screen Actors Guild deems ineligible for its annual award, determining that the production didn’t meet the terms of the guild’s low-budget feature agreement. But the 2013 Oscars thought differently, and has turned little Quvenzhané, now 9, into the youngest ever nominee for Best Leading Actress (she was 5 when she auditioned for Beasts of the Southern Wild).
Hushpuppy bonds with the schoolteacher, Miss Bathsheeba, an erratic woman but deeply engaged in the learning she passes down the kids. “The most important thing I can teach you, you gotta learn to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are,” she warns her pupils. Her class on the ice age, cave painting and aurochs, extinct but real prehistoric animals that Miss Bathsheeba has tattooed on her tight, will deeply resonate with Hushpuppy and will become a central metaphor in the film. (See the featurette on the aurochs)
When a violent storm hits The Bathtub, father and daughter are tight together in their tree-house-trailer to fight destruction and desolation. While Wink’s health deteriorates, Hushpuppy is fiercely fighting to restore order. When the men plan to bomb the levee to alleviate the bayou’s flooding damage, it’s Hushpuppy who, unexpectedly, initiates the explosion. The Bathtub residents are forced to evacuate and unwillingly hospitalized (and treated and cleaned up). Hushpuppy cannot let her ailing father die “plugged into a wall,” as she sees the people with breathing/feeding tubes in the hospital. So, she leads the escape back to the Bathtub to fulfill her father’s last wish.
Filmed in sumptuous cinematography (Philip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has called it “a visual tone poem”), Beasts of the Southern Wild is a coming-of-age story soaked in mythology and vivid imagery. With also lessons from “post-prosperity America,” as David Denby in The New Yorker has defined the film’s scenario. The reference to Hurricane Katrina is overt and environmental concerns are obvious. In Hushpuppy’s visions, the polar ice caps melt (and release a wild herd of frozen aurochs). The profiles of drilling rigs and oil refineries that hunt the horizon of The Bathtub’s residents are visible threats of past, present and future eco-disasters. “The whole universe depends upon everything fitting together just right,” messianic Hushpuppy tells us. ” If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.”
However, reading Beasts of the Southern Wild as merely a vehicle for a (questionable, according to Kelly Candaele, LA Review of Books) political message is – in my opinion – missing the richness of Zeitlin’s film. It’s a hymn to creative forces, to the power of imagination, to endurance and freedom. The chant to independence, survival, and the rights to die as we wish becomes a fable-like universe in which the reality of global warming and polemic social commentary is no stronger than myths and legends (a mythic enchantment that feminist and social activist bell hooks warns us against in her bitter criticism to the film). However, it’s not “magic realism”: it hasn’t the eerie quality of the early 20th century art movement; there are no supernatural forces as in many literary works labeled as such (i.e., Gabriel García Márquez).
Beasts creates its own folklore: prehistoric creatures and witch medicine (to cure Wink) co-exist with high-brow literary/artistic/cinematic references (the educated viewer will easily find connections with Mark Twain, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, or Théodore Géricault’s painting Le Radeau de la Méduse/The Raft of the Medusa). The Bathtub will have its own archeology: “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,” pronounces our heroine.
Local culture combines with anarchist force: in the attack to blast the levee, the men use a fried alligator as container for the dynamite. Hushpuppy connects to the heart of nature, literally: she often grabs an animal and listens to what beats inside. This is how she is able to stop and tame the aurochs. When she blocks the savage prehistoric beasts, you almost feel Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans (1794-1881).
There’s joy in the derelict but raffish world of The Bathtub. However, the pagan energy that transpires from the film is not mere glorification of life at the margins of society, the romanticization of a liminal, nomadic life. It’s the universal celebration of the value of freedom – free of being. In the cinematic patois of the film, the closing scene, with the group of people who remains in The Bathtub marching together, visually recalls the finale of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
Rebellion has no class. The bourgeois and the poor can all march together. It’s the power of cinema.
With a budget of $1.8 million, Zeitlin has created a sensory and emotional feast, punctuated by a stunning soundtrack (composed by Dan Romer and the director himself). Based on a play by Lucy Alibar, who wrote the screenplay with Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild won the Camera d’Or (best first film) at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered.
Born as an independent, local film, Beasts of the Southern Wild has received four Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director (in addition to best actress and best adapted screenplay), and is opening worldwide.
In Italy, it’ll premiere on February 7, 2013 with the title Re delle terre selvaggie, Kings of the Wild Lands. The beasts have turned into kings while some generic wild lands have erased the southern specificity. Alas… Even more painful is hearing the Italian trailer. When are Italians going to stop the barbaric, fascist practice of dubbing films? (Yes, dubbing was introduced in the Italian film industry by Benito Mussolini as a form of controlling censorship and enforcing nationalism).
For more information on the film, visit their website.
(copyright Roberta Tabanelli 2012)
I re-edited this review in Jan. 2013