The opening scenes of Beasts of the Southern Wild introduce us to Hushpuppy, the cutest 6 year old that ever lived, and the harsh environment of rural poverty in which she is being raised. I say “raised” rather than the proper southern “reared” because Hushpuppy’s daddy, Wink, while he loves her profoundly, has no idea how to be a father. It’s not clear that he would have any idea how to be a father even if he weren’t an alcoholic, and, as it transpires, seriously ill.
John wanted to see Beasts of the Southern Wild because it was filmed nearby in Terrebonne Parish. “Terrebonne” means “beautiful earth” and the marshy landscape is starkly beautiful, and unforgiving. Hushpuppy, her dad and their neighbors live outside the levee that protects the parish from floods, on an island called “The Bathtub”. The name is a conceit of the movie, but a real island, Isle de Jean Charles, inspired it. Isle de Jean Charles is disappearing into the rising waters of Terrebone Bay.
Hushpuppy is going to school of sorts, and is being taught about global warming and its effects in her teacher’s inimitable style. (At least I hope it is inimitable. Lord knows it would have got me fired.) She also learns about cave people and the extinct aurochs, which Hushpuppy imagines coming to life as the global ice caps melt. The aurochs comes to figure more and more in her imagination and in the movie, the “beasts of the southern wild” that represent the real-life troubles that threaten to overwhelm her just as floodwaters threaten to take away her home.
At home, her living situation is, to put it mildly, unusual. She has her own house, actually a broken down trailer, next door to her daddy’s, but separate from him. Wink disappears for a few days without leaving any provision for her care, and Hushpuppy fends for herself while reflecting stolidly that “Children with no mommy and no daddy have to live in the woods and steal underwear” and “If Daddy doesn’t come back soon I’m going to have to eat my pets.” When he returns, a storm is moving in. Wink and a few neighbors ride out the storm rather than fleeing, and while at first they are able to join forces to find food and shelter, the reality of the effects of salt water on the local flora and fauna forces them to take desperate measures, which in turn bring them to the attention of the world inside the levee.
That world does not represent rescue for Hushpuppy, however, and neither does the woman she sets off to find who may or may not be her mother. Finally she returns to her world to face the reality of her father’s impending death. In a powerful scene, she literally looks her fears in the eye and says, “You’re my friend, sort of”.
But then, the aurochs that haunts her imaginings is the least scary thing about this movie.
Quvenzhané Wallis is the cutest child actor ever, but she is playing a six year old. I am tired of movies that feature precocious children, children who manage to have skills and philosophies at 6 that most of us did not have at 25. All over the world there are real six year olds who feel fear and confusion at parental neglect and abandonment, who feel deprived by poverty and who need comfort for their fears. These children are not as articulate and philosophical as movie tykes, but they are lovable and engaging, and they deserve to have their stories told. Maybe the people who make movies should try that some time.