Happiness is in the eye of the beholder. That seems to be the key presented in the Benh Zeitlin film Beasts Of The Southern Wild that looks at life through the perspective of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her life in the bayou community known as The Bathtub, past a levee just outside of what is likely a Louisiana city. Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) though their arrangement is far from typical.
One of the most important factors in the makeup of this film is the presentation of their surroundings. The houses are made up of anything and everything found that can be put to use. Hushpuppy has her own house, an old mobile home placed atop some tree stumps some metres away from Wink, who also has his own shack. They catch their own food, raise their own livestock and entertain themselves with each other and the others in the community, friends of Wink and their children. Words that immediately come to mind. Poverty, poor, misery – or a veritable utopia, safe from the outside world.
As the film is presented from Hushpuppy’s point-of-view, things sometimes seem larger than life and based off of things she’s learned. One of these points is where the comparative meaning of the film’s title comes from, a mythical creature called the aurochs that live in the melting ice caps. With each passing major event, they are represented by these creatures as they make their way closer to them. An outsider to the Bathtub might perceive these people to be the beasts but what this movie is successful at showing is that people are fully capable of being happy in any setting. While “civilized” folk might think of the conditions in the Bathtub to be deplorable, the film takes great care to show how content they are, the massive contrast between that and their surroundings. Despite what they might have working against them, including the rising water levels, they never mention their situation as being anything but an ongoing challenge they are always willing to work with.
Hushpuppy is a very knowledgable girl, taught by her father how to survive in the event that he is no longer there. The basics of life. But she is still a little girl and much of the film shows how she views the world, her desire to find her mother and her impression that her father will always be there. Quvenzhané Wallis does a shockingly amazing job as she explores the thought process of Hushpuppy throughout the film while performing naturally an independent girl who must rely on her father’s teaching and the community in order to survive. While she’s taught to not let emotions get in the way, they ultimately work in favour of the film and come as a reward following much buildup.
The film is a slow-goer, may seem to go nowhere at times and sometimes feels like a random chunk taken from a little girl’s mental diary with no actual objective behind the chosen start and finishing times – until the end. Beasts Of The Southern Wild is a beautiful film, even if not aesthetically pleasing, it goes far and beyond what a standard Hollywood production would in delivering a story that presents a never-viewed perspective in a way never expected by someone who couldn’t imagine being in such a setting, much less happy about it. Simply put, our first impression of the Bathtub is completely and utterly wrong.