There’s a little island in the Louisiana bayou known to locals as the Bathtub in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. The rural, feral community that inhabits that Bathtub is indeed a family. The lot stand together, protect one another from outsiders, and never miss out on an opportunity to teach the next generation of Bathtubers to enjoy life.
Hushpuppy, a little girl with a big attitude, is probably one of the most gentle characters ever portrayed on film. Played by Quvenzhané Wallis, she spends her afternoons in the Bathtub watching nature and listening to the heartbeats of every animal she comes across (even the occasional crab). She’s fearless in her pursuit of adventure, but at six years old she knows that the world is bigger than her bayou backyard.
Hushpuppy spends her time learning about the circle of life and surviving the harsh, minimalistic world she lives in. She lives alone in a dilapidated metal and plywood hut (her father lives in his own hut across a field), knows how to light a gas stove with a blowtorch, and is brave enough to fend for herself when her father goes missing for a day.
But that’s how it is for everyone in the Bathtub—you must learn to stand on your own two feet.
Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), isn’t your traditional onscreen role model, nor a typical bad guy, for that matter. He feeds and clothes his daughter and teaches her how to survive. He doesn’t shower her with love, but cloaks her in independence. He’s not abusive, but he is absent, to some degree, and spends much of the time drinking away his inner pain. In fact, Wink is clearly neglectful of Hushpuppy, and it is upsetting for the viewer to watch at first. But he’s doing what he can to prepare her for the day when he’ll be six feet beneath the ground. He does what he can for his daughter with a small amount of resources, and doesn’t seem to complain about his circumstances.
His wife, who abandoned them years ago, doesn’t linger in his mind like she does for Hushpuppy. Based on family legend, Hushpuppy’s mom loved her so much that her heart broke, and she had to swim away from the Bathtub. Like any little girl looking for an escape, Hushpuppy often talks to the air around her, imagining that her mom is talking back through the wind.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is nominated for four Academy Awards, all well-deserved, for Best Picture, Actress in a Leading Role, Directing, and Adapted Screenplay. Although Quvenzhané Wallis’s speaking role was limited on-camera, her performance was commanding and endearing to watch. I’m only disappointed to learn that her co-star, Dwight Henry, was not nominated as well.
Beats of the Southern Wild challenges our notions of what constitutes a good life. It teaches us that families can survive and live happily with nothing at all. It’s a gritty, beautiful portrayal of a community that the world has forgotten as if the water washed it away. There’s grace in the town’s defiant rebellion against modern society. In an era of gluttonous consumption of modern conveniences and an endless quest for prestige and power, the Bathtub salutes simpler living for anyone who’s strong enough to endure it.
Like the citizens of The Bathtub, the film wades through life with too much time on its hands. After all, the Bathtub has “more holidays than the whole rest of the world,” as Hushpuppy says. So no one’s in a real rush to get anywhere fast. That is, until a hurricane blows through town.
In one night, the Bathtub is flooded with the harsh saltiness of the sea, and everything is underwater, slowly decaying away. Only a handful of those who didn’t evacuate to the mainland of Louisiana survive, and together they work to rebuild the community recently submerged. But how can less than a dozen people revitalize a place drowning in itself? How can it save itself without any help from the outside world?
Throughout the ordeal Hushpuppy shows amazing intelligence and is never disillusioned. Hushpuppy is brazen, hyperaware and kindhearted to everyone she meets. But she’s still a little girl and is ultimately afraid of what tomorrow might bring when her father becomes seriously ill. Her imagination brings her fears to life in the form of the ancient aurochs (Oar-awks) when the town healer and teacher, Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), tells her about the terrifying beasts: “A fierce, mean creature that walked the face of the earth back when we all lived in the caves.”
Paleontologists define real aurochs as ancestors of domestic cattle with long horns. But the film depicts them as hairy, giant wild boar with tusks and two white horns facing forward and parallel to the ground. For Hushpuppy, the aurochs of her imagination are the Harbinger of Death, breaking free of their icy prisons in the South Pole, and trampling a path of destruction on their way to demolish the Bathtub and everyone she cares about, especially her father.
Will Hushpuppy remain an inquisitive little girl, or will she be forced to grow up too quickly? As Hushpuppy says, “Everything loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.”
Beasts is a beautiful reminder that death won’t destroy you. In just 94 minutes, this film will leave you stronger and better prepared to face the uncertainty that tomorrow brings.