Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is part Magic realism, part Neorealism, part folktale and totally astonishing. It tells the story of a small southern Delta community called the Bathtub as seen through the eyes of 6 year old Hushpuppy played by Quvenzhané Wallis. A violent storm has unleashed a primal force that threatens to uproot and lay waste to everything in its path, with its sights firmly planted on the Bathtub and its inhabitants. Hushpuppy’s father Wink played by Dwight Henry senses the impending doom and tries desperately to prepare and teach his daughter about the splendor and cruelty of life.
First time director Ben Zeitlin shot the film over the course of 8 months on location in post-Katrina Louisiana using non actors. He collaborated closely with the community to help shape the story and the characters. With the obvious Katrina reference possibly overshadowing the plot, Zeitlin articulated to CBC radio that he ultimately wanted to tell an emotional story rather than a potentially political one. Zeitlin (who is a native New Yorker) has been criticized for a cultural appropriation approach to film making. I feel that when critics are on witch hunts they tend to scare up witches but while watching the film I did not get the impression that the story was either disingenuous or exploitative. Beasts of the Southern Wild is about: the importance of home, what constitutes a life well lived and the resiliency of people rather than some set of finite circumstances.
As I was watching Beasts of the Southern Wild I also couldn’t help but draw parallels to another film where a father navigates through a cruel world to provide for his family. I kept thinking of the Italian Neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves ( or The Bicycle Thief as it is known in North America) by Vittorio De Sica. Neorealism was a film movement that originated in Italy in the late 1940’s that dealt with everyday stories – sometimes ripped directly from the headlines of the newspapers of the time. The low budget films were usually shot on location using non actors. The film Bicycle Thieves tells the story of a man’s struggles in post WWII Rome. A father gets a job plastering posters all over Rome. In order to fulfill his obligations, the job requires that he has a bicycle. With very little money to their name, the family is forced to sell the sheets from their beds to pay for the bicycle. On his very first day, while his back is turned for a brief moment the bike is stolen. He turns just in time to watch a man ride off with his future. Devastated by this loss the father accompanied by his young son desperately searches to find the thief. The depiction of a father trying not to unravel in front of his child under dire circumstances is not dissimilar to the story of Hushpuppy.
Quvenzhané Wallis’ portrayal of Hushpuppy is a wonder to behold. She conveys a child’s perspective of a broken world full of monsters ( giant tusked boars called Aurochs ) with subtly and fire. If you have an opportunity to walk a mile in her rubber boots, you won’t regret it.