” I see that I’m a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they’re gonna find it all. They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she live with her daddy in The Bathtub.”
Funny how back during the summer of 2012 there were two hit movies from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival that were released: Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom. If you asked me which one would be most likely to be a Best Picture nominee for this year’s Oscars, I wouldn’t guessed Moonrise Kingdom would have the best chances. How wrong I was. I finally had my chance to see Beasts so I can see why it’s a Best Picture nominee and I now know why.
This film starts with Hushpuppy: a young girl living in an island community on the Louisiana bayou called ‘The Bathtub’. The Bathtub is a small community cut off from the rest of society by the water surrounding the island but it’s close-knit and shares in its bonds and celebrations. Hushpuppy and her father don’t have much but they’re optimistic for each other and share a close bond. The bond is threatened as Wink is missing and Hushpuppy has to fend for herself. Wink returns in a hospital gown and argues with Hushpuppy. Things get worse when Hushpuppy sets her house on fire. That leads to fight that starts with Wink slapping Hushpuppy and her responding with a punch to Wink’s heart that leaves him collapsing of cardiac arrest.
Meanwhile the ice caps are melting due to climate change and the melting ice unleashes the Aurochs: prehistoric ice-age creatures Hushpuppy learns of in school. A storm brews, threatening the Bathtub community. It’s then that Hushpuppy and Wink reunite and he keeps her shelter in his home. He even tries to calm her by shooting bullets in the sky to ‘scare off the storm’. After the storm, the two reunite with other people of the Bathtub community. Their attempt to rebuild the community is halted as saltwater has flooded the community. Even an attempt by Wink to detonate a bomb made out of an alligator carcass doesn’t succeed well enough and the residents are forced by authorities to evacuate the Bathtub to an emergency shelter and Wink to face further medical attention. All are resistant as the evacuees escape back to their homes and Wink is too violently stubborn to face surgery.
Hushpuppy knows her father will die despite whatever help he’s given and she goes searching for her mother whom her father has commonly reminisced over. She thinks she found her in an island restaurant as a waitress. Nevertheless the waitress tells her she can’t take care of her. This soon leads Hushpuppy to soon face the Aurochs and deal with her dying father. This leads to an ending that is both intense and solemn.
The film is a unique story of an environmental catastrophe threatening the life of a Louisiana bayou. A lot of images of people taking refuge may remind a lot of people about Hurricane Katrina from seven years ago. The best thing about this film is that it’s more than just an envirofiction story set in the present but also one styled to look like a folk story from the Southern US along the styles of a Mark Twain folk story. Without a doubt, the protagonist Hushpuppy is the spirit of the story and the characters surrounding her, both humans and other beings, area also as much a part of it. She was a little six year-old with a spirit of toughness. Even though she was five, she had to have a toughness for her age as life on the bayou was no ‘big easy.’ People, especially her father Wink, had to hold their own and faced constant threats. People had to be tough. This was something Hushpuppy took to heart as made evident when she tried to do her own cooking. Despite burning down her house, it showed how this was a thing Hushpuppy had to do at such a young age. That was also evident with the scene of the ‘alligator bomb’. This was something too dangerous but Hushpuppy was determined to aid because she felt it needed to be done.
Despite Hushpuppy being the lead protagonist, Wink was the key supporting role as he would have the best impact on Hushpuppy. The biggest key element of Wink was how key he was in another major theme of the movie: the sense of values most people in town in the South carried that most of us modern city folk either take for granted or overlook as we want to live however we want to. He knew how important in life it was to be tough and he passed on his beliefs to Hushpuppy because he wanted her to have that same toughness. He owned a domain that most people would label as a ‘hunk of junk’ but he always considered it his and he was determined to keep it even during times of disaster. He and the neighbors bonded together in a time of taking shelter and escaped because they all felt a huge bond of community. It was a stubborn sense of these values Wink possessed as he refused to let go of them even if he knew he was dying. These were values that he wanted to pass onto Hushpuppy. He wanted her to be tough including encouraging her not to cry. He wanted her to be responsible and hold her own. He wanted her to have a bond with the community. These were values he wanted to pass onto Hushpuppy as he knew that he would soon die and it would be her turn now. And it was evident as Hushpuppy would carry out her father’s last wish and also stay with her community until the bitter end.
The biggest efforts of the movie have to go to Benh Zeitlin with his many efforts. He directed it, he co-composed the music with Dan Romer, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Lucy Alibar: author of the one-act play Juicy And Delirious of which the film is inspired by. What he delivers is a major accomplishment in filmmaking that paints a picture of an area and of a people as it tells a story. It tells a story of a community fighting to stay alive and together despite huge environmental adversity. Interesting that his Wikipedia bio says he was born to folklorist parents and it becomes evident in this film as the film, as I mentioned earlier, also styles the protagonist of this drama to come across as a folk hero one could recognize from fiction set in the south in the 1800’s. Ben’s only 30 and this is his first feature-length film after directing three shorts but he appears to have a promising future ahead of him despite nothing upcoming listed on his IMDB profile. Time will tell if he either moves on to bigger and better things or if he becomes a one-hit wonder director.
Even though the movie’s accomplishments are mostly Zeitlin’s they are also greatly through the efforts of young Quvenzhane Wallis. She was actually six at the time of filming but she did her job excellently but also delivering a character as tough as nails as much as she was a happy spirit. Also a delight to see a child perform a character that isn’t too cutesy. I’ll admit she will make some people uncomfortable when she describes somebody as a ‘pussy’ but she delivers a character that’s not only tough but with the charm of those folk heroes of the southern US literature I keep talking about. Sure, Benh may have directed her to be such but took Wallis to be the perfect fit and to deliver.
Also as important is Dwight Henry. Being a non-actor is an advantage for him in portraying Wink. He delivers a character who’s gritty and stubborn but loving and gives Hushpuppy a tough bond that he wants to last even after he dies. The supporting actors didn’t have as strong of roles but their performances also added to the movie whether it was their performances or even their presence as non-actors as it made the story feel that much more realistic. Also they gave personalities to people one would normally call ‘rednecks’. People deemed ‘rednecks’ are the subject of jokes and humor form the light-hearted jokes of Jeff Foxworthy to the trashy faux-reality of Honey Boo Boo but this film shows them as people with needs just like everyday people. Kind of the same way Winter’s Bone portrayed people commonly known as ‘hillbillies.’ Interesting how this film was made on a budget of $1.8 million and it wins nominations from the Academy. Buzz and awards wins from both Sundance and Cannes definitely helped it. Funny how size matters where the little guy has an advantage.
Beast Of The Southern Wild is a piece of modern folklore by a director with a folklore upbringing that becomes an accomplishment through is directing and storytelling and Wallis’ portrayal of a pint-size heroine. Those who see it will never forget it.
And there you have it. This is now the thirteenth year in a row I’ve done my pursuit of seeing all the Best Picture winners before the Oscars. Hard to believe it myself. Yes it’s tiring but it becomes worth it both for the sake of my blog and for Oscar night.