If you could bottle the dreams, perception and imagination of a six-year-old girl and then project what you have captured, then you may get something that resembles Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. However, this extraordinary example of subjective cinema is not just through the eyes of any six-year-old girl, but it’s the view of the world as experienced by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a tough and resilient young resident of a fictionalised bayou community in the south of the US.
Known as the Bathtub, the film’s setting is a composite of isolated southern American fishing communities. In particular, Zeitlin has drawn inspiration from communities affected by rising sea levels and extreme weather as a result of climate change. Imagery from post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans also weighs upon the film in its portrayal of a proud community that refuses to have its spirits crushed by disaster, regardless of how much is lost. This spirit is also reflected in the dynamic between Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry). The pair live on the same piece of land, but in separate ramshackle houses, and alternate between annoying each other and caring for one another. The spirit of defiance against all adversity is put to the test in the film’s most touching scenes where Hushpuppy is being told by Wink to put on a brave face while confronted with the knowledge of his illness.
The depiction of the fictional Bathtub community is similarly affectionate with reservations. While the film is viewed through the eyes of Hushpuppy, who sees the world as infinitely magical and wondrous, details such as the extreme poverty that the community live in and the constant drinking remain throughout the film. So rather than romanticising a particular way of life, Beasts of the Southern Wild is more accurately described as providing a magical realist depiction of an isolated US southern community, where Hushpuppy has embellished the joyous and celebratory aspects while attempting, without completely downplaying the neglect and threatening situations.
Magical realism is also employed to express the film’s circle of life themes. The sound design and the use of close up and handheld camera create a remarkable sense of texture for all the shots of animals and meat. Preparing and consuming food is often in the foreground of scenes, linking characters together by their shared meals, but also linking the humans with the animals that they keep as pets and as a food source. The sound of heartbeats that Hushpuppy can hear emanating from all living creatures frequently appears on the soundtrack. Catching, killing, preparing, cooking and eating are part of a natural cycle and at the top of the food chain are the human characters who decide when an animal becomes meat. The found object aesthetic throughout the film also helps to place the characters within the food chain rather than detached from it, as the inventive approaches to creating shelter and other resources from whatever is on hand contains echoes of when the human race lived as hunter/gatherers, living directly off the land and from the sea.
Pre-modern civilisation is most effectively evoked in the film by the presence of the large aurochs; cattle-like creatures that have been extinct for several centuries. They are released back into the world from melting icecaps, which are linked to the global temperature changes that have also creating the ferocious storm and flooding that the Bathtub community suffers. These events also occur during Hushpuppy’s realisation that her father is sick so that the destruction of Hushpuppy’s internal world manifests as the destruction of the rest of the world due to climate change. Just as a father’s illness threatens the way his six-year-old daughter experiences the world, climate change threatens the natural order. The release of the ancient aurochs symbolises the world fighting back and the personal demons that Hushpuppy must face.
Beasts of the Southern Wild combines big scale ideas about the natural world and how humans relate to it with a very personal and subjective portrayal of a young girl reconciling what is happening to her father and community. Similar to The Tree of Life grand universal themes are juxtaposed to an intimate personal story. The resulting film is a remarkable cinematic experience that is both profound and immensely moving. Zeitlin has coached remarkable performances from his non-professional actors and created an extraordinary world that remains recognisable despite being constructed and exaggerated. Even with the hardship and tragedy that befall that community, seen through the eyes of Hushpuppy it is a beautiful and magical place that is very hard to resist, a lot like the film itself.