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Beasts of the Southern Wild

May Film Series
Sponsored by the Houston Psychoanalytic Society and the Jung Center

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

 Commentary by Donna R. Copeland, PhD
May 15, 2014

             This film is clearly about the need for strength and persistence in the face of life’s trials if one is to survive.  As we know, some trials are of our own making, but some are simply thrown into our path.  Most of the trials in Hushpuppy’s young life are not of her making, and they are enormous:  the loss of her mother, her father’s alcoholism and illness—and perhaps the way he looks at life—and the surroundings into which she was born.  On the positive side, her father loves her—in his own way—and teaches her skills she can use to survive were she left on her own, the most important likely being that she is strong, despite the fact that she is a girl.  Wink asks his daughter, “Who da man?”  And the answer is, “I’m da man!”  Somehow, she has also learned to think—to muse about the meaning of life and how everything fits together.  Her philosophical musings are sprinkled throughout the film, and reflect an active mind that absorbs teachings from a number of sources—her father, her schoolteacher, and nature itself.  And that is another theme of the story, her intimate connection with nature in all its aspects.  At one point, she muses that “everybody loses the thing that made them.  That’s how it’s supposed to be in nature.  The brave must stay and watch it happen.  They don’t run.”

            Beyond the story of a remarkable little girl, Beasts of the Southern Wild has metaphorical connotations as well.  One reviewer refers to the film as a “bracingly seamless fusion of the fantastical and magical and mythical with an authentic homegrown docu-reality”  (Tully, Michael, FilmmakerMagazine.com, 6/28/12).  Co-producer Michael Gottwald agrees, saying it is best regarded as a myth.  I concur, and see it as a work of magical realism, which Wikipedia defines as “a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_realism), and it goes on further to say that one expert (Professor Matthew Strecher) defines magical realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”  I think the aurochs invading Hushpuppy’s swampland fit this description.  They signify the rages of nature that roll over the Bathtub residents and past them, threatening their lives and property.   Hushpuppy is keenly aware of the impending storm, which she visualizes as these huge aurochs she has learned about at school.  Benh Zeitlin, the director, patterned these after the cave paintings in Lascaux, France.  The aurochs were huge animals of the past; they were thriving earlier in time, but have gone extinct; they could represent death and change in this context.  Zeitlin has said that Hushpuppy sees herself as being in the same position as the cavemen.  She sees herself as the last of her kind, on the verge of extinction.  He goes on:  “The nature that she grew up in, that she relies on, is coming apart.  Animals are dying.  The trees are dying.  Her father is dying.  Her community is evacuating.  So for her, it is this apocalypse.  The feeling comes from her sensing that everything that’s ever taken care of her, everything that created her, is disappearing (Charlie Jane Anders interview on io9 Beasts of the Southern Wild, “The Making of a Modern Fable:  Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  7/3/12). 

            Aurochs appear six times in the film; first as tattoos on the schoolteacher’s thigh when Hushpuppy first learns about them by the schoolteacher telling the class about the fierce, mean creatures that long ago crossed the face of the earth.   The second and third times the aurochs appear are during and immediately after the storm, when Hushpuppy’s whole world is flattened.  The fourth time is two weeks later when plants and animals are starting to die, and aurochs run through the Bathtub destroying everything in their path.  Soon after that, Wink goes to blow up the levee.  We see aurochs the fifth time after the storm is over and Hushpuppy is sleeping with her dad.  And finally, we see them when Hushpuppy has visited The Elysian Fields and she is on her way back to her dying father.  When they appear this time, Hushpuppy is no longer afraid, and she has accepted her father’s death.  “You’re my friend, kind of”, she says to an auroch, and they all bow to her and walk away.  So they seem to represent the destruction in Hushpuppy’s world; when she is able to accept those trials and feel confident—King of the Bathtub—they are no longer needed.

            Another connotation is the film’s reference to ecology.  It shows the aurochs encased in Ice Age glaciers, then set free by a storm like what is about to happen in the Bathtub.  Benh Zeitlin in an interview says,

                        What interested me is that you have these two animals on the verge of extinction
                        that are designed by nature—one is supposed to eat the other, and the other one
                        is supposed to kill its predator in order to stay alive.  But both creatures [here] are these
                        wise, honorable animals that understand at the end of the film that the greatest sin
                       
you can commit is to kill an animal on the verge of extinction—to kill the last of
                        a kind.  So it’s not just about [one’s]… own survival.  It’s about allowing each other to
                        go on.  (Film Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat.
                       
http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=23221)

            The Bathtub is caught on the one side between nature in its destructiveness and on the other, by an ever-encroaching industrial civilization in the levee and oil refineries.  The film is a comment about our own time when the glaciers are rapidly melting and the seas are rising as a result.  Apparently, compounding the problem, Louisiana—where the film was shot—is one of the places where this is already occurring.  I hear, for example, that every half-hour a piece the size of a football field slips into the Gulf of Mexico, and that southeastern Louisiana is the fastest disappearing landmass on earth.  Places that used to be fields, are now covered by water.  Apparently, oil companies dug canals in the area, which brought salt water in and hastened the process of erosion.

            David Edelstein in his review of the film notes that whereas most cultures have flood stories, the one in this film is specifically attributed to global warming and the ice melting in the Arctic.  He says, “Her watery community of multiracial outcasts lies downstream from a levee, its scattered dwellings pieced together out of rusted bric-a-brac, whatever has been scavenged or washed up.  On the dry side of that levee sits a huge and ominous factory… ”  He concludes that “the film is a mythic odyssey laced with modern ecological anxieties, captured in a free-forming image-driven narrative that recalls Terrence Malick’s  [film], The Tree of Life” http://www.npr.org/2012/06/29/155929229/beasts-taking-southern-folklore-to-the-net-level).  That is, it’s about nature and humans’ relationship with it, and about animals sometimes respecting the existence of the other.  If you saw the film Tree of Life, you might remember a larger dinosaur looking like it is going to kill a smaller one, but then changes its mind and walks away.

            Five other characteristics of magical realism include:  1) the supernatural realm blending with the natural, familiar world.  (An example is Hushpuppy’s talks with a mother who is not physically present, and her spoken thoughts about nature, particularly in the beginning of the film.  She is intimately involved with nature all around her, being outdoors as much as indoors).  2.  Magical realism might be the story’s proceeding as if nothing extraordinary took place, as, for example, the aurochs’ not really being explained in the film).  3).  Conventional exposition, such as a linear time structure, is ignored in the film to strive for a state of heightened awareness of life’s connectedness or hidden meanings (Events in the film are not presented in linear time.)  4) Magical realism is sometimes implicitly critical of society, particularly the elite. (Remember Wink’s comments about the oil refineries, contrasting them with their beautiful home in the Bathtub, and about the levee being built to cut off the Bathtub without concern for its inhabitants).  And the 5th characteristic of magical realism is the story being told from a child’s point of view (Hushpuppy’s).

            It’s interesting to note Hushpuppy’s evolvement across time in the film.  In the beginning she is shown to be close to nature, and at that time, her understanding of nature is reflective of her young age; it’s in terms of food—a larger animal eats a smaller one.  To her, the impending storm, which could be her doom, will swallow her up, and she goes so far as to wonder how people will look back on her civilization.  Moreover, her father is being consumed by illness; her home and the land around it is in danger of being consumed by the storm; and saltwater invasion will eat up the plants and animals.  But gradually, as Hushpuppy processes what is going on around her, she matures, her view evolves, and she sees nature as a flowing system, as opposed to larger animals eating smaller ones.  She sees nature as “something in which everything has its place and everything plays its part.”  If it doesn’t “fit together just right”, she muses, it “falls apart.”  One must evolve—transform oneself—and adapt to the storms of life in order to survive.

            I think the Elysian Fields—the place Hushpuppy and her friends are taken to in a boat when she is trying to find her mother—is also part of the magical realism of this film.  In Homer, the Elysian Fields is a beautiful meadow where Zeus’ favorites enjoy perfect happiness.  In other mythology, it’s the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and virtuous.  In this film, it’s the place Hushpuppy goes looking for her mother, not only for comfort, but perhaps as well to achieve balance between the feminine and the masculine within herself.

            I will close with a quote from Zeitlin, the director and co-writer with Lucy Alibar:

                        The people of Isle de Jean Charles, Pointe Aux Chenes, and Montegut
                        have been knocked down and picked themselves back up so many times
                        that they truly know what’s important.  There’s a real knowledge that
                        everything you’ve got—every commodity, every dollar, even the ground
                        beneath your feet—can just go away.  And what’s going to be left is
                        nature (plants, animals, land, water…) and what’s invisible—friendships,
                        families, ancestors, communities, culture.  [He continues…]
                        I don’t know if I could have told you this when we started shooting, but
                        I learned through making the film that Hushpuppy’s journey is a process
                        of internalizing all those things, finding her place amongst them, and
                       
finding a wisdom and a peace that makes her as fearless and resilient as
                        those last towns standing strong on the edge of America.  It’s amazing,
                        these days, whenever I lose my way, I feel like I’ve got Hushpuppy on
                        my shoulder telling me how to think right, and how to do the right thing.
                        I hope she can be that angel for a lot more people as well.
                        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/22/beasts-of-the-southern-wild-benh-                                                          zeitlin_n_2728547.html

Side notes about filming:
Wallis won her role over 4,000 applicants.

Aurochs were pigs raised by the producers, and then dressed up—in costume, so to speak.

Wallis had final say on the actors playing her father.  She rejected two (one was too overbearing).  It probably helped Dwight’s chances when he brought her pastries from his bakery to sweeten her up.

The BP oil spill happened during the filming.  They were right on the edge of it, and the oil kept coming closer and closer.

Accusations about exploitation/racism/primitivenesss—or depicting HP and her father as “noble savages:  I think this is unfair in that, in reality, much of the world’s population does live in what we would see as primitive circumstances simply because of economic and political factors.  The film can be admired for showing human tenacity, persistence, and strength among the people faced with all kinds of beasts that might threaten their existence.  I like to think that HP is someone whose strength—carefully fostered by her father—will see her through to a better life in the end.  One review,  Ty Burr, says,  “There’s too much empathy in the film” for those charges to stick. 

Pronounciations:
Kwa-van-je-nay
Pont au Shen
Isle de John Charles
Montague

Dinosaurs and comparison to Tree of Life.  In ToL, one dinosaur looks like it is about to finish off another that is dying, then seems to change its mind and goes on its way.  Zeitlin talks about HP and the aurochs coming to an understanding not to kill the other, who may be the last of its kind.

Awards:
Academy Awards:  Nominated in categories of picture, actress, director, adapted screenplay
BAFTA:  Nominated for screenplay
American Film Institute:  Won movie of the year.
British Film Institute:  Won Picture.
Cannes:  Un Certain Regard for Benh Zeitlin
Independent Spirit Awards:  Won for cinematography (Ben Richardson)
Sundance:  Son for cinematography (Ben Richardson)
                  Grand Jury award for Zeitlin