“Beasts of the Southern Wild”: Fierce and Tender

“See this movie,” a friend texted. So, I did. Afterwards, walking through the lobby, my companion asked me “So, what do you think?”

“Fierce and tender.”

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” was made with courage and love. It took the Sundance and the Cannes Film Festivals by surprise and by storm. Conceivably this may be one of the strongest Oscar contenders so far this year. It’s a beautifully made film that doesn’t sacrifice its heart to the special effects. Rather they fit together seamlessly and intimately.

Young Quvenzhané Wallis who plays Hushpuppy stuns me still, days after viewing the film. She’s on a heroine’s journey flanked by her community to save their bayou home after a hurricane floods out “The Bathtub.”

Back home I read some stuff about the movie on the internet. I’m here to say that it’s not: fantastical; a fairytale, a Marxist exegesis, a celebration of poverty or many other silly things. Nope. It’s mythic and marvelous. It’s searing and soulful.

Imagine a diagram with Hushpuppy at the center. Then imagine successive ripples outward for: father-daughter relationship; community; the land; “civilization” beyond the levee; the ice age. That’s a pretty big pond.

How do we make our worlds make sense? How do we make the world whole? Hushpuppy somehow figures it out. There’s a continuity of eons from the ice age to this Titan of a Tyke in Underpants whose visions include recurring images of crumbling glaciers and rumbling prehistoric beasts. We are moving through a changeable world. This is it. This is how it is. This is life.

The father-daughter relationship is at the core of “Beasts.” He’s sick. He’s dying. “Don’t think I don’t know,” Hushpuppy says. This harsh environment can be nurturing—to “take care of the littlest and sweetest” and each other. Harshness does not cancel out love.

Even in her absence Hushpuppy’s mother is present—in the dirty red sports jersey Hushpuppy smoothes out beside her to listen when her baby talks. Her mother is in the blinking light in the dark. Mother is out there somewhere and everywhere. The Mother is always there as an invisible presence.

The boat that takes you where you need to go transports Hushpuppy and the group of girls to the floating catfish shack. I was so afraid they were going to be sold into the sex trade. Instead the women treated them to a feast of nurturing: cuddling, cradling, and feeding them. It’s an idyllic respite of soft femininity—like a waltz. “This is my favorite part,” Hushpuppy says. “I’ve been picked up twice.” Once by her father when she was born. And once again in this woman’s arms who many well be her mother. Hushpuppy’s search for The Mother is complete. She and the others could stay. But they go back to The Bathtub.

“I have to go home.” And she does. Outside her village she is pursued by the ancient aurochs. She turns to stare them down before she returns to sit beside her dying father. She feeds him pieces of fried alligator and then takes a bite herself. It’s a shared communion.

“No crying” they both say—as they both do. Afterwards Hushpuppy respects her father’s wishes. She sets his corpse on fire inside the truck boat and pushes it out to sea in an ancient ritual of flesh, fire, ash, and water.

This is a movie I’d like to read. The writing is so good, and so direct. It knows you don’t have to be fancy to be profound.

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  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. Janet, you used all the right words in describing this film, and its impact. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and can’t imagine that I’ll ever forget it.

  2. Oh, thank you, Gaye. It’s such a powerful movie. Not just for this year, but on my all-time top ten. I’m glad it’s getting some recognition with the award season. –Janet

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