For six-year-old Hushpuppy, the way of the universe breaks down simply: everything just has to fit together. If one part’s broken, the whole thing falls apart. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the first feature film from acclaimed indie writer/director Ben Zeitlin, this falling apart is kicked off by a torrential hurricane that tears through “The Bathtub”, a fictional island off the bottommost edge of Louisiana. The Bathtub is removed from both the mainland and from contemporary society, and, says Zeitlin, is inspired by “on this island called Isle de John Charles, which is all the way in the marsh, and the population there is basically a Native American population that, over the last 40 years, has shrunk from 200 families down to about 20.”
To Hushpuppy and the others of The Bathtub, the bayou is all that exists. She and her father, in the unexplained absence of her mother, occupy homemade shelters in the forest, living as one among the animals they claim both as pets and meals. Hushpuppy is on a perpetual search for her mother, whose absence has removed much of the warmth shared between her and her father, Wink. He suffers in strained privacy from a fatal heart condition, and strives in vain to keep this big secret from his little girl. When a monstrous storm strikes, the people of the Bathtub refuse to leave, and band together to face it. The hurricane brings with it more than just devastating wind and rain, however. With the fallout, prehistoric boar-like animals called Orox emerge from their centuries-long sleep to kill the weakest of living creatures.
Zeitlin, on speaking of his vision for the film, said he wanted to explore the “holdouts” of the most recent hurricanes that terrorized Louisiana, Gustav and Ike. He was most interested in telling the story of the “holdouts”, who “were standing by their homes despite the fact that they could get wiped off the map at any moment”. The film makes a commentary on issues with industrialization, coming-of-age themes, and what it means to be a family, pulling from traditional folklore to create a modern-day myth with otherworldly vision. Zeitlin explains, “I wanted to make a film that really respected the reality of being six […]. I wanted it to be something where [Hushpuppy’s] ideas are totally respected, because she’s sort of the wise woman of the movie.”
Although much of the history and deeper connections among Hushpuppy, Wink, and the rest of the Bathtub clan are left unrevealed, “Beasts” is never unsatisfying. The mystery—and mysterious hope presented through Hushpuppy’s eyes–leaves us with a feeling meant to suggest that, really, there is no definite end, or “truth” to the story.
Beautiful, lyrical, and engaging, Beasts of the Southern Wild ranked as an acclaimed winner in the film festival circuit, and looks forward to a brilliant reception in theatres, when it is released July 6th.