Where Wild Things Are, by Josh Long
The world is falling down around us. The globe is shaken by natural disasters, there are wars and rumors of wars, the beaches are eroding and diseases are spreading. Even though we see and experience the entropy around us, there are many things that bring us hope. Children are a common wellspring of promise and hope embraced by cinema. Whether it be childish enthusiasm or unfiltered simplicity, there is something in childhood that draws us in and builds us up. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a film about childhood, but a film that uses the lens of childhood to explore the philosophical idea of decay and destruction. And it’s happier than you might imagine.
The main character and emotional center of the film is a 6-year old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis – let me stress how glad I am I only have type and not pronounce that name), who lives south of the Louisiana levees with her father in a community called “The Bathtub.” The Bathtub is a hopelessly located community – they are constantly in danger from storm or flood, and literally cut off from the mainland by the levee. It is only a matter of time before the waters will wash away their home. Yet they remain indomitable, surviving and thriving despite an always imminent doom. It becomes quickly clear that Hushpuppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is seriously ill. Hushpuppy has to get by in a life like a house of cards, ready to fall apart at any moment.
This isn’t your old doom-and-gloom poor people story. The Bathtub merely serves as a metaphor for a world with an expiration date. Everything decays, “everyone’s Daddy dies.” Our homes might not be washed away by flood waters, but they might be foreclosed. We might not be orphaned, but we will lose friends and loved ones. This is the natural state of things. But this can’t be the end. In fact this is where the movie begins. We start out taking this at face value, accepting The Bathtub as it is. The question becomes, “now what?”
The characters of the movie could lie down and give up, or gripe with each other, feeling sorry for themselves. They could even lash out against anything or anyone who seems against them – but they don’t. They live. When their houses wash away, they build new ones. When they get sick, they keep going. Even in a funeral for those lost in the floods, they celebrate, drinking boisterously and eating crab straight from the shell.
Hushpuppy’s narration early in the film speaks of some spark that is inside all living things. We see it exemplified by the heart beat she listens for in animals and people all around her. It’s this vitality that the people of The Bathtub embrace to keep going. They are survivors, and find joy just in that. To be alive is something beautiful, even if it’s all going to end. Even when faced with harbingers of death, Hushpuppy says “I got to take care of my own.” There is no lying down to let the destruction take over. That isn’t living.
The film displays this message so poetically, and so beautifully, and steps deftly out of so many traps that might catch this type of story. With such a grim and desperate subject matter this could easily be a depressing, somber film. But since it’s told through the eyes of an imaginative, optimistic 6-year old, it maintains a sense of wonder. All the tragedy, all the danger is seen through Hushpuppy’s eyes. Her imagination even becomes weaved into the realism of the narrative. In one sequence, Hushpuppy goes searching for her estranged mother who “swam away.” She finds a cook at fishermen’s watering hole who is, to her, her mother. There is no logical reason this would be her – it’s most reasonable to assume that “swam away” was Wink’s way of telling Hushpuppy her mother is dead. But the logic doesn’t matter – if Hushpuppy believes it, then it’s true. In a young child’s mind there is no room for analysis. There is only belief.
The film also avoids the temptation to become political. There are some potentially politically charged elements here; poor African-American family, lower class people washed away south of the levees (it’s hard to not bring Hurrican Katrina to mind), a man with a disease who is clearly too poor for modern medicine. Instead of making a political statement, the filmmaker uses these familiarities to deal with something bigger, something more universal. The film is deeply emotional, but never manipulative or politically charged.
You probably haven’t heard of Benh Zeitlin before. This is his first feature, but it made a big splash at Sundance and Cannes, and for good reason. He takes what are very serious questions, and distills them into an almost celebratory fable. His mise en scene reflects the chaos that endangers his characters’ world, through quick cuts, handheld camera work, and natural lighting. In casting principally non-actors, he uncovers a simplicity in his characters that is arresting. From acting, to production design to camera work, it’s a film that’s well thought out and executed, everything clearly pointing to one greater message.
Though Hushpuppy’s world may not last for long, she and her people continue to live, and thrive, and leave their stamp on it. Beasts of the Southern Wild is about embracing that attitude. Even if the world crumbles under our feet, we still have a vitality, something deep in us, that makes the living worthwhile. Like Hushpuppy, we can say in bright optimism, “I see that I’m a little piece of a big big universe, and that makes things right.”