“I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right,” Hushpuppy says matter-of-factly in Beasts of the Southern Wild. “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy in the film, was five years old when the film was shot. She is a delightfully captivating presence on the screen, and I say that as someone who tends to dislike child actors. Hushpuppy is the central character in the story and Wallis’ scenes are worth the price of admission.
Beasts of the Southern Wild unfolds a story, but is best viewed as a series of impressionistic encounters rather than a simple story line. Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, played by Dwight Henry, live in The Bathtub, an isolated island in the Delta that seems to be a world unto itself. Tropical, ramshackle, cut-off from a civilization that exists on the other side of the levee, the people inhabiting The Bathtub live with fierce independence in a society rent with alcoholism and poverty. Wink is by turns abusive and protective, and his failing health provides the setting for the depth of his relationship with Hushpuppy and their neighbors to be revealed.
Watch Beasts of the Southern Wild by receiving the flow of impressions that make up this movie. Impressions of a young girl’s flights of imagination, where ancient aurochs, freed from being frozen in melting ice cliffs once again roam the earth; of depictions of poverty so artful as to become grindingly awful; of a world surrounded by water that is both full of bounty and of pent up power that unleashes floods of destructive power; impressions of houses and boats so richly imagined as to be almost iconographic; of remnants of old stories, based on obscure symbols that though fragmentary have the power to shape lives, hopes, and fears; of a story where the myriad details of life are shown to have dignity while being inseparably connected to the whole of creation, both seen and unseen. Most of all, receive the impression of looking at reality through the eyes of an irrepressible young girl for whom life is lived with playful abandon, where joy is real along with pain, and where death is the interruption that is the final enemy.
I would find it difficult to write discussion questions for Beats of the Southern Wild because I can imagine that a discussion of the film could touch on almost everything. Even at its most surrealistic, this is a profoundly human story, revealed on the screen with such visual power that its images will forever shape our imaginations. Watch and discuss it with friends: you won’t know where the conversation is headed, but chances are it’ll be somewhere meaningful.