Benh Zeitlin, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)
Can’t be very many films where the main characters are played by a very young girl and a man in his 30s or 40s and when those exist, the characters are usually a daughter / father couple or a variation as in daughter / villainous step-father in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. As with the Mexican film, this work deals with very large themes: in this case, climate change, the class divide between the super-rich and the marginalised poor, community struggle through catastrophe, the celebration of life, hope and one person’s coming-of-age as a potential leader of her community who learns what true courage and love are. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her drunken father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in an impoverished fishing village called The Bathtub which is isolated from the outside world by a huge levee thrown across the Mississippi river. Not that Hushpuppy or her people care: to them, the people on the other side of The Levee, holed up among the chemical factories and oil refineries, live like cowards and get just one holiday a year while every time is party-time in The Bathtub.
Wink is sick and does his drunken best to care for Hushpuppy whose mother died young; Hushpuppy tries to care for Dad especially when he comes home from the hospital and she cooks food for him. Her caring ends abruptly when her home blows up because she doesn’t know she has to turn the gas stove off. School is a ramshackle shack run by a local woman who fills the kids’ heads with stories about how the ice caps are melting and revealing the fossils of aurochs (the ancient ancestors of cattle) and in Hushpuppy’s mind the aurochs are reviving and travelling south (and maybe north) from the poles. Because Hushpuppy has probably never seen cows before, the aurochs take the form of gigantic hairy pigs with tusks growing out of their heads. Viewers are alerted that there will be a confrontation between Hushpuppy and the aurochs.
Everyone expects that their world will be submerged when the polar ice-caps melt but then the Mother of all Storms in Hurricane Katrina hits and dumps rain, hurricane-force winds and thunder upon them. Wink and Hushpuppy take to their boat (part of a ute balanced on two oil drums with a motor attached at the end) and call on all their neighbours who have survived. People start rebuilding their world, replanting crops, caring for animals, trying to clean up; in the meantime, the aurochs continue their advance towards The Bathtub. Wink and his mates blow up The Levee to release the excess salty and polluted water poisoning the animals but too much has been damaged for The Bathtub to salvage and recover. Shortly after the world beyond The Levee intrudes and takes everyone to a disaster relief centre but some of them, Wink and Hushpuppy among them, escape. By this time, Wink is terminally ill with what could be pneumonia or tuberculosis.
The film is at once visually beautiful and ugly: it’s ugly in a technical sense because Zeitlin relies exclusively on hand-held cameras to capture the sense of viewing the world through a young girl’s eyes – if only he realised that the story and Wallis’s portrayal of the character were more than strong enough to carry off the project. In the film’s early scenes, the camera is very jerky and most scenes would have been better filmed with a still camera so that they acquire a diorama-like look; this would have impressed upon the audience that the film is an allegory with the characters representing larger-than-life archetypes. It is not difficult to see Hushpuppy as a very young hero figure in the making. Later as the narrative develops and Hushpuppy grows in maturity, the jerkiness of the camera is not so evident but it can still be annoying in parts. The beauty of the film lies in its close details, its lingering over the animals that share Hushpuppy’s home and its close identification with and sympathy for Hushpuppy’s worldview and that of her community so that when they bust out of the disaster relief centre and return to their ruined homes, viewers understand their reasons for doing so, of which more will be said below.
Parts of the film are very hokey – one hardly imagines that such an isolated and poor community can be all that bothered with global warming, much less hear of it, and the house fire scene hardly has much credibility – and the last third of the film ascends into sheer fantasy when Hushpuppy and three of her friends visit the Elysian Fields, cunningly disguised as a brothel, with a local fisherman (Charon in disguise), where Hushpuppy meets her mother or a mother figure. At this point, the film might be said to have retreated entirely into Hushpuppy’s dreamworld; the reality, if people persist in believing it still exists, is that Wink and Hushpuppy are not among those who have broken out of the disaster relief centre and have been swallowed in a deportation away from The Bathtub (see more below). The social realism / magic realism combination suggests The Bathtub might represent the original People of the World, direct descendants of those who walked out of Africa 100,000 years ago to populate the entire planet: the film’s coda suggests as much. Wallis is the major highlight as the brave, resilient, imaginative and curious Hushpuppy with Dwight Henry providing plenty of emotional depth, resolve and resourcefulness as her father, by turns strong and determined, violent and irresponsible, joyful and tragic. The music, partly composed by director Zeitlin, is another major highlight: strongly bluegrass and zydeco in its basic style, it has zest and colour and rocks with a strong three-four beat and rhythm.
What emerges in the use of social realism / magic realism is that emergency relief, when it does come, might have a sinister agenda behind it to break up The Bathtub and destroy the community’s bonds. Many of The Bathtub’s residents fail to escape the disaster relief centre and in real life after hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, they would have been transported to Texas, Oklahoma and beyond, and forced to stay in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) where some would have died after breathing formaldehyde fumes. In the meantime their properties would have been claimed by private developers to build holiday resorts for the rich. The message in the film is that everyone and everything has a place in the universe and its networks cannot and should not be usurped by force if everything is to function properly and sustainably.