“Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”
In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy, her daddy and the world of Bathtub can come to an end at any moment. They can trip into non-existence by flood, fire or hurricane. But not while the “Boss Lady” or “The Man” is in charge. She can stare down the beasts, horned prehistoric creatures—the aurochs.
Christened by her father Wink (Dwight Henry), Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is “The Man,” a six-year old African-American girl with glowing light around her head. Father and daughter live on an island named Bathtub, somewhere outside of New Orleans in the Bayou of Louisiana in adjacent makeshift trailers downstream of the levee protecting an industrial park. They travel around in a homemade boat made from a truck chassis and oil drums.
Hushpuppy cares about the earth: its animals (she holds them close so she can hear what they want to say to her), and its carnivalesque people, be they drunks, the unwashed or the unemployed. Don’t be fooled by the soft syllables of her name. She’s a powerful Child-Prophet who has been steeled by her sick daddy. He teaches her to catch catfish by hand, to cook for herself and to break open a crab (to “beast it”) with her hands.
Her face fills the screen, her determined, defiant, wilful face. Her voice dominates the movie’s soundtrack along with rousing zydeco music. When she’s not talking to someone, she’s talking to herself (and the audience), narrating in almost Shakespearean-like soliloquies. Her voice thunders like Jeremiah and whispers like Elijah. She looks as gentle as a dove and she’s as tough as one of the resident pigs.
Hushpuppy is a potential leader of the Occupy Movement, the 99 per cent, the vast majority in America, and elsewhere, who’ve come to the realization that if I’m to survive you need to survive too; if I prosper, you need to prosper too. When the Flood comes, you need to hang onto your neighbour. And your neighbour needs to hang onto you. “You gotta learn to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are,” Hushpuppy’s grade-one teacher says.
Hushpuppy is full of wisdom beyond her years… “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted,” she says. She’s also aware that “sometimes you can break something so bad, that it can’t get put back together.”
She lives in squalor but to her it’s paradise. Her imagination allows her to reinvent her circumstances. Her mother didn’t abandon her. She swam away because Hushpuppy’s heartbeat was too strong to bear. When cooking, her mother didn’t turn the stove on, the stove turned itself on because she was so beautiful. Hushpuppy goes in search of the lost mother and finds someone who resembles her, someone who, in one of the tenderest moments in the film, lifts her up and holds her close during a Fats Waller song. She can count on two fingers the number of times she’s been lifted up. This is one of those times.
Directed by Benh Zeitlin with a handheld camera and co-written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a quest story, a daughter looking for a mother. It’s also a father-and-daughter survival story. But mostly it’s a joyful child’s story of her life in the time of an impending apocalypse. Is there a better movie title in recent cinema? Is there a better movie this year?