“Ain’t that ugly over there? We got the prettiest place on earth.”
This is the first line of dialogue of Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it’s spoken by Wink to his daughter Hushpuppy as they float near the levee that separates New Orleans from “The Bathtub,” where they live. The Bathtub is like a jungle, a third-world village, a disregarded and unattractive area that the government has left vulnerable to storms in order to protect a more lucrative tourist area around The Big Easy. The people of The Bathtub live below simple. The chicken they eat is the chicken they raise and throw on the grill with everything except the head and feathers. Sometimes dinner is a can of 9-Lives catfood. School is a shack on the river where a science illustration might include a tattoo on the teacher’s leg.
For Wink (Dwight Henry) and Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis – nominated for Best Actress), home is two separate trailers on stilts. The bathroom is the woods. When they were floating near the levee, it was in the separated bed of a pickup truck that Wink has fashioned into a boat powered with an outboard motor. Underwear and rain boots might be the only clothes for the day. And sometimes, when the time is right, you just need to have a parade. Why? Because. Wink is not much of a father, and neither of them knows where the mother might be. Wink doesn’t know all the right things to teach Hushpuppy except one – survival. He knows that there will be a day when she is on her own. He doesn’t know how to teach love except to teach survival because, in his world, life is love and the only thing to love is life. And he knows that his life is coming to an end, which is why he must teach Hushpuppy to take care of herself.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin and based on a play called Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, is a story about a girl (although the play was about a boy) whose father is dying and some of the bad things she has ever learned about are crashing down upon her. These things include famine, ancient and extinct beasts, melting ice caps, and floods. Zeitlin not only directed but also helped Dan Romer (who also wrote music for some of President Obama’s campaign videos) write the music, including a wonderfully uplifting theme called “Once There was a Hushpuppy” that closes out the picture as the credits roll. Selling this film to a studio could not have been easy, nor could directing it. There are natural elements that had to be awkward to control, and I imagine there must have been numerous takes tossed out until just the right shot was right.
Beasts of the Southern Wild blurs the line between fantasy and reality, especially when reality is not all that good. The worse of the not good is when a hurricane, intended to be a Katrina-like event, approaches. Most people evacuate the low-lying Bathtub, but Wink and a gathering of friends intend to prove they are tougher than nature and the government that has shut them off. What Wink does to prepare for the hurricane seems negligent and ignorant, but it is the best he can do because he doesn’t know any better. An interesting note about Dwight Henry who plays Wink, is that he is not an actor but a baker in the New Orleans area where the film was shot. The producers had posted flyers on a wall in his bakery, and Dwight became friendly enough with them that they eventually pursued him to take the role. Initially, he turned them down because of his responsibilities at the bakery, but eventually there were adjustments made to accommodate him.
In order to truly enjoy this film, you have to be willing to walk along that blurred line. It is not a film that everyone will enjoy, especially those who don’t have an appreciation for visual arts and those who don’t have kind hearts. There are scenes in which we see that Wink doesn’t really have what it takes to be a kind father, but there’s no doubt that he wants what he thinks is best for his child – even if what he thinks is best is not really what actually is best. But that’s all any of us can do – our best. Considering this is only Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film but it has been nominated for best picture, how much more “best” can he possibly do? I don’t know, but I’ll be waiting to find out. I can’t imagine this film willing Best Picture, but I can easily imagine it was nominated for the courage it took not just to make it but for the courage of people living in Bathtubs everywhere.
Teacher gives it an A- only because limited audiences will appreciate its charm.