"Unlike when we saw Tree of Life, I didn't sit through the whole film wondering why I was here," was one friend's summation as we left our viewing of first-time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild. She meant chiefly that she hadn't been bored by Zeitlin's Beasts as she had been with Terrence Malick's Tree. But I and the third friend we had just seen Beasts with both remarked that Tree of Life had in fact been in our mind as a comparison for other reasons. Both films deal closely with the relationships between fathers and their young children, in which tough love is formative; both intersperse images of extinct animals, conveying deep time and the enormity of natural forces; both are cinematic explorations of specific slices of Americana outside what Hollywood often serves us, told as a series of vignettes cut by sonorous music and pondering voiceovers. But Tree is a useful comparison because it also points to a key difference: Tree's child was deeply concerned with this question of why we are here, while Beasts's child is more focused on how here feels.
That child is six-year-old Hushpuppy, and her "here" is the Bathtub, an isolated, storm-tossed Gulf Coast bayou. At first all we see are Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, living separately in their dilapidated homes, eking out a rough self-sufficiency. Later, our view expands to the rest of the Bathtub's shabby but tight-knit and often joyous community. Later still, we see outside the Bathtub—inside the levees, where modern society has retreated. One of the pleasures of Beasts of the Southern Wild is this gradually expanding viewport into Hushpuppy's world. But importantly, seeing more does not give us more answers. Our initial view of Hushpuppy's home feels almost post-apocalyptic, the world after the flood. When we learn that life behind the levees looks just like life today, it is more disorienting than clarifying. How long has the Bathtub been there? Has Beasts's story taken place already, or is it set in the near future, or is this happening now? The slipstreamy lack of knowledge is chilling. A science fiction story is something that has not yet happened, but may; a history is something that did happen, according to some narrator. By blending and confusing the two, Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar create something that feels more inevitable, inexorable, than the strongest of SF's warning stories.
Hence the aurochs. In her small community classroom, Hushpuppy is shown a tattoo based on a cave painting, stick figures with spears fighting prehistoric aurochs. She's told that the aurochs as a species are extinct, killed off; but that some were frozen in the last ice age, and as climate changes causes global temperatures to warm, they will thaw out and return. And, to such beasts, Hushpuppy will be nothing but meat. Sure enough, following the twinned logic of a child's imagination and twenty-first century story, we soon see a small herd of "aurochs"—more like giant boars—freed by the polar ice melting. They begin a rumbling rampage down the world, straight toward the Bathtub, and Hushpuppy.
The question of whether these aurochs are real is simultaneously the least important question of the film, and the most important.
On one hand, the aurochs are a clever representation of the way imagination, particularly childhood imagination, works—of how a child will seize on some random bit of information, and leap to imbue it with personal mythic significance. The aurochs represent how Hushpuppy sees the world. They are her mother's disappearance, her father's illness, her own inevitable future. They are revenge for humanity's breaking of the world. They are avatars of nature, and of death. The relentless motion of the aurochs reflects Hushpuppy's idea of death as a movement: her mother, Wink tells her, had to swim away; Wink's wasting illness is presaged by his going somewhere that he won't tell Hushpuppy about.
And we may smile at this personal fancy of the aurochs, this childish representation, until we realize that the adults of the film are subject to an equal fancy: the idea of the Bathtub as home. They cling to the Bathtub, desperately, not merely as if their lives depended on it—staying in the Bathtub is far more life-threatening than leaving would be—but as if something even more important did. Stubbornness, or pride, are easy words for this, easy concepts. Too easy. The suspicion might be, given the other elements of the film, that we are to see this as animal behavior at work, territorialism. But that, too, feels insufficient. One feels, rather, that what Zeitlin and Alibar are getting at is not so much concepts as the process by which places gain significance. How here comes to be delineated from there, us from them. We can see the process in the motion of Hushpuppy's aurochs, and we can see it even more clearly in the relationship between Hushpuppy and her father.
Of the two actors who form this relationship, much has already been written in praise of Quvenzhané Wallis, the young actress who plays Hushpuppy. It is warranted. Wallis's Hushpuppy combines colt-legged newness with fierce determination, open desire to care and be cared for with pensive introspection. Less often mentioned is Dwight Henry, who plays Wink. This is a shame, as he is also excellent. Wink is a not very likable man in a not very likable situation: a single father trying to raise a daughter without any idea how, as the rain-flooded world races his alcohol-flooded liver to see which will drown first. There's an art to playing a character who is utterly unsympathetic except in a pitiable sort of way, and making the audience sympathize nonetheless. I'm never certain how much to praise the acting of child actors because I'm never certain to what degree they're doing the same thing that adult actors are; here, Henry's portrayal has a terrible awareness that separates it from Wallis's. Henry's Wink is a man doing his absolute best, but so broken that his best can only be a form of necessary damage—and he is aware of this.
The damage done to Hushpuppy is as a child in general, and a girl in particular. Wink is both incapable and unwilling to see Hushpuppy as a girl. He can only see one path of survival: his own, as an adult male. And so this is what he teaches Hushpuppy to be. "You're gonna be the King of the Bathtub, I promise that," Wink tells her. Director Zeitlin expertly evokes a mix of personal victory and audience horror as Wink forces Hushpuppy to arm-wrestle him: "Who's the man?" Wink screams at her; "I'm the man! I'm the man!" yells back Hushpuppy in triumph. In another scene, Wink prevents her from using utensils when eating fresh-caught crabs: "Beast it!" he shouts, and "Beast it!" the other Bathtub residents chant. It's a similar sort of tough love to Brad Pitt's father figure in Tree of Life, but more primal—and made more challenging by the gender roles. (In Alibar's one-act play Juicy and Delicious, from which the relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink is drawn, Hushpuppy is an older boy. It has sometimes been suggested that a story can be made more inclusive and more interesting simply by switching the gender of one of the characters. In general this suggestion is insipid, as it fails to take into account that the whole history of society's reactions to the character, and thus their whole interior life, would be changed as well. But what Beasts shows is that one scenario where the tactic can be usefully employed is in the case of child protagonists, for whom the full play of gender and sexual socialization forces has yet to take hold. Because then it becomes apparent that what is really being toggled is not a binary gender switch, but rather those forces of socialization.) The end result is that when Wink chooses to die at home rather than live beyond the levees, Hushpuppy has been shaped to fill the Wink-shaped hole he leaves behind in the community. She is perfectly adapted to her environment. And so, we sense, she will never leave it. "When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me," she says. Through death and survival, the place, the here, has become too much a part of who she is. She is bound to the community not by interest but by responsibility.
Whether the aurochs are real or not is irrelevant, then. If they are not, we would put something else in their place, and it would be equally unreal. This isn't a new insight for a reader of modern fantastika, but it's not something that's been often dealt with in recent film. What films like Beasts and Tree show is how elements of the narrative of modern written fantastika—such as deep time, the world as an actor, the inescapability of story—are, as images, seeping more deeply into the popular awareness of how a story about now must mean.
Part and parcel of this is a fundamental equipoise: for all that we instantly understand the unreality of the aurochs, Zeitlin invests a great deal in conveying the impression that the matter is in question. Some of this, to be sure, is making virtue of the limitation of a small budget. Both the grainy film and the wobbly camera convey an impression of unprocessed realism. As suggested by the film's title, some individual shots even seem modeled after nature documentaries, as does the overall vignette-driven structure of the film. And the film's imagery of nature is often raw and uncompromising. (My friends and I sat through the credits in part out of curiosity as to whether the usual claim that "no animals were harmed" would be made; if it was, we all missed it.) But balanced against all this are clear signals that we are being told a story. Most directly, Hushpuppy gives us several voiceovers, at one point saying that she wants to leave a mark so that "in a million years, when kids go to school," they will know about her, and her father, and the Bathtub. But there's also a somewhat cartoonish quality to some of the secondary characters in the Bathtub, and to the world outside: we're seeing these things through a child's eyes. Again, to some degree this is making virtue of limitation—most of the actors are amateurs—and it doesn't always entirely work, as for example the absence of spirituality from the community seems an odd omission. But it is generally an effective blending of how a child might see the world, and how a child might tell a story about their world.
And of course, there are the aurochs. Because we're being told a story, it is a matter of some doubt whether the aurochs are real within the story. That they are, matters. When Hushpuppy and an aurochs eventually, inevitably touch, when the other characters see and react to the aurochs, it is more than just a joining of metaphor and reality—more than a general illustration that for an individual, metaphor is reality. The touch carries a specific set of meanings within the film. For Hushpuppy, it means coming to terms with death, in particular of her parents; that she must step into the role of an adult, greet the aurochs with self-sufficiency rather than child-like fear. The touch also stands in contrast to the original tattoo of the aurochs. There is no attack here, no spears, no exploitation unto extinction. Rather there is a covenant of respect, a determinedness to do things right this time. And with all the aurochs represent as forces of the natural world, incarnations of the climate change that both created and now threatens the Bathtub, it's a powerful statement of responsibility, of awareness and maturity.
But there is another side to this. The fact that the aurochs are real within the story, that others can see them, means that we are fully enmeshed in Hushpuppy's tale. And part of what we see in her tale, when she and the aurochs touch, is a lingering childishness: a child's belief that things can always be fixed, can always be made right. We know better. We know that the forces of climate change flooding the Bathtub cannot be so easily halted. We know, even as we hear her story, that the Hushpuppy who lived in the Bathtub is the last of her kind. That what we're seeing, that what Zeitlin and Alibar and Wallis and Henry and all their cast and crew have created in Beasts of the Southern Wild, is what we can recognize as a cave painting from the here and now. We were here, it declares, and this is what being here felt like.
Matt Denault has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston. Depending on when you are reading this, he either has or had a blog called Lingua Fantastika.