“I want to be cohesive.”
When 5-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, playing Hushpuppy, whispers that extraordinary statement about 2/3 of the way into Beasts of the Southern Wild, it does not surprise you. Because Wallis is no ordinary actress, Hushpuppy is no ordinary child, and Beasts has been completely flawless and extraordinary up to that point. So while you do feel a quiet, even awed delight, you have learned to expect that.
Hushpuppy’s small wish expresses the movie’s heart: a longing for completeness, for a mother who will wrap you in her arms and sway to soft music, a father whose hard, metallic love shines through the illness that devours him, for a family, for courage, for home. Her eyes take in everything, and she listens intently, knowing that she will hear what she needs to hear if only she can be still enough. A child who seems almost feral at the beginning, Hushpuppy nestles her ear against tightly-held birds and crabs as she tries to decode their languages and heartbeats.
A handheld camera allows us to see the world hurtle by at her level. That world is is The Bathtub, a place of terrifying grace and tender savagery. Settled in a bowl-like area of Louisiana, it lies south of a levee that keeps civilization away. The Bathtub residents are fine with that. They are a family, all living large in what appears to be dire poverty, but in which there are no racial or economic barriers. They party hard and laugh often and loud. A Bathtub-style funeral means no one cries.
Storms pound the area, storms of preternatural power that first manifest in Hushpuppy’s father Wink (Dwight Henry, a Louisiana restaurant owner who gives a performance as amazing as Wallis’s). Blade-lean and gator-quick, Wink bolts, without warning, from unorthodox provider to raving madman. Loyal in the way only children can be to their parents, Hushpuppy refuses to lose faith in him, but also to back down. Filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, who is somehow not from Louisiana, has us so deeply immersed in Hushpuppy’s world that we experience every emotional gradient along with her: affection, confusion, terror, rage, wariness, bellicosity. And when Wink gets right in his daughter’s face and demands that she bust open a crab with her bare hands and suck out the meat, we break it right along with her – and feel power, pride, and a sudden rush of love for this man who exhorts his daughter with a fierce cry of “You the king!”
From here out, we know that, despite Wink’s deep and fatal flaws, he is, somehow, the right father for this child. Her tenacity, ferocity, and tenderness result from watching and learning from him.
But she also closely observes everything and everyone around her. Early on, Miss Bathsheeba, the ad hoc teacher of The Bathtub’s children, reminds them that they are all animals. The acknowledgment of that close kinship fosters, at least in Hushpuppy, a matter-of-fact acceptance that all mammals do, at times, inexplicable things But she knows that they all have heartbeats. After all, she’s heard them.
Inside that great truth lives this amazing and wise child. She knows that, in the battle between love and fear, there are no prisoners. We decide which is greater. We choose which way to face the scary things that chase us.
Beasts is a reminder that love gets dirty, it screams and roars, it is altogether magnificent, ferocious, and unruly. By embracing its power, a child saves her father, her friends, but most of all herself.
Every one of us can choose to do the same.