The Bathtub, setting for Beasts of the Southern Wild, is one of those places that is so far in the margins of America that is pretty much off the page.
Bathtub, setting for Beasts of the
Southern Wild, is one of those places that is so far in the margins of
America that is pretty much off the page. A
ragtag collection of shotgun shacks clinging to the edge of the Lousiana Bayou,
it’s a place where not only do the normal rules not apply, they don’t even
enter into the thoughts of its disenfranchised but defiant inhabitants.
It’s a world away from anyone’s idea of America. The
Bathtub is at the end of the road and at the edge of the earth.
Among the residents is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis),
a six-year-old girl all but orphaned. Her mother is long gone and her dad, Wink
(Dwight Henry), is semi-feral, ailing and too often absent.
Left to her own devices, Hushpuppy does what six
year-old’s do – she gets lost in her imagination and connects with what’s
around her. And around her there is life – goats and dogs and chickens and
insects, all of which live lives much like Hushpuppy, with their own language
and their own take on how things are.
In school, Hushpuppy is taught of rising waters, of
nature’s red-in-tooth-and-claw side and of creatures that once roamed the earth
and that roam no more, and it is these that stick with her when a
once-in-a-century storm comes and swamps the Bathtub.
Her young mind runs riot, seeing ice caps cleaving
into the sea and freeing huge warthog-like beasts from the permafrost. They are
her fears, and throughout she hears and sees them coming ever closer, as she
floats around the flooded Bayou in Wink’s half-an-old-truck jalopy of a boat,
cracks crab with the survivors and watches the salt water take its toll on her
Director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature is
remarkable, and worthy of all the praise that has been lavished upon it – it’s
a lucid dream, a fairytale and a fantasy.
The imagination sans frontieres of a child is laid
bare – the incipient alcoholism and neglectful ways of the adults that inhabit
her world are, to Hushpuppy, just the ways things are and the ways things
should be, because she knows no better. She does know she’s happier on the
‘wrong’ side of the levee, where every day is taken as it comes, than if she
were a dry-land coward, sheltering behind the sea walls.
“Sometimes you can break something so bad that it
can’t get put back together,” she says at one point. It’s unclear if she’s
speaking about her dad, or the world. Hushpuppy is both naive and full of all
It’s an astonishing depiction of a child’s
imagination, and if you’re lucky you’ll see as good a performance from a
young actor again in your life. At times you’ll remember she was eight on set –
eight! – and catch your breath.
For his part Dwight Henry, as Wink, veers from lunatic
to life-and-soul, through caring, resourceful father. A drinker, like everyone
else in the Bathtub, he is stricken with an unnamed illness that may or may not
be related to this.
Henry and Wallis play off each other with tremendous
verve, belying both the age gap between them and their total lack of
Dwight Henry owns a restaurant. He had never acted
before. You’d never know.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a meditation on
childhood and death and the sheer wonderous terror of the bit in between, all
told through the eyes and mind of a little girl. It’s also the finest cinematic
response yet to Hurricane Katrina, and a damn sight more affecting than David
Simon’s patchy Treme.
If the end doesn’t both break your heart and then put
it back together again with the joys of the world, put your hand on your chest
and make sure you’ve actually got one.