The lead actress could barely read – the supporting actor was spotted in a bakery, never having acted before. These statements hardly raise high expectations, yet independent film maker Benh Zeitlin’s low budget, fantasy drama Beasts of the Southern Wild finds itself among this years greatest blockbusters, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. But one can not help wondering – how?!
Set in southern Louisiana, a bayou community’s way of life is threatened by the effects of global warming. The melting ice-caps not only cause severe flooding and storms, but also release deadly Aurochs – giant prehistoric creatures that were preserved within the ice for millions of years. The people of the bayou, named The Bathtub, must now learn how to survive these harsh conditions.
The lead character, five year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), lives in The Bathtub with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Battling with his health, Wink’s aim is to ensure his daughter can survive life in the wild without him. Wink delivers tough love, prioritising practical life lessons over cuddles – he and his young daughter live in different shacks, and he teaches Hushpuppy to catch fish with her bare hands. At times you crave for the father to be more caring and affectionate, especially after he hits the young child to the ground. However, there are a few incredibly touching incidences where Wink displays more warmth – such as when he allows Hushpuppy a fatherly embrace, after she expresses concern over his health – so don’t forget your tissues!
Hushpuppy is very in-touch with the world around her, and seems wise beyond her years. When the bathtub community is taken to safe land, following a mandatory evacuation, Hushpuppy describes the rehabilitation shelter as ‘a fish tank with no water’, displaying her advanced and mature powers of observation. Yet Zeitlin still manages to accurately capture her age and naivety – after Wink hits Hushpuppy, she loses her temper with him and says, ‘I hope you die. And after you die I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself’. Despite the lead actress being only six years old during filming, Wallis gives an extremely powerful performance and really brings her character to life, earning herself the title of the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Oscar Award. Beasts of the Southern Wild explores the relationship between the individual and freedom in a way that has never been done before. Zeitlin focuses on attachments and strips the characters of all luxuries to expose the real meaning of ‘need’.
Throughout the majority of the film, Hushpuppy wears little more than knickers and a vest, but on their arrival at the shelter, she is put in a dress. After witnessing what the young girl has been exposed to in the bathtub, this conventional form of dress seems somewhat ridiculous to the audience. Zeitlin holds a mirror up to society through Hushpuppy, and the audience is forced to view life through the eyes of someone who was raised in the wild – she states, ‘when an animal gets sick here, they plug it into the wall’. Perceptions of what is natural are challenged when we are introduced to the sterile environment of the shelter for the first time. Unlike within our culture, there is no television or video games in The Bathtub, and Hushpuppy’s pets are also her primary food source. Though sustaining life in the bathtub is difficult, this makes the community more grateful for basic necessities. I would definitely recommend watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Zeitlin’s strong message of bravery and celebrating life is guaranteed to stay with you.