Life Cycles, A Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild, at Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco
By Wanda Sabir
Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin is a lyrical film about a community in Southern part of the Louisiana Gulf Coast called "The Bathtub." Surrounded by water, this little island is cutoff from the mainland more than just physically. It is the philosophical separation that makes its people look suspiciously at what those on the mainland see as normal. Inherent in their lives is a respect for all living beings. The line between childhood and adulthood doesn't exist as a father teaches his daughter to be tough, so tough she has her own house, which she burns down on purpose (smile). The two even share a drink when the child, who is supposed to be tough, and tough means to accept life without tears . . . the two break down. The kid, is after all, a child, perhaps eight, maybe younger.
The writing is what gets the audience. The externalized thoughts of this little girl who speaks to a mother who is no longer present, a dad who is sick, and we find out later, dying. When Hurricane Katrina comes, the folks in The Bathtub don't evacuate, they make plans, which are in constant flux. Like life, they roll with the tides and when rescued . . . they leave.
Wild. . . containment is not something they are used too. When learning about the melting glaciers and the prehistoric animals that walked the planet before us, Hushpuppy, is able to have a meditative acceptance of life as it cycles --sunrise, day, sunset.
The interchange between the beasts whose nature is survival juxtaposed with that of the human species, who are also beasts, Hushpuppy's teacher tells her students, yet with a twist. The wild boars might eat their kin if hungry enough, but for the tribe Hushpuppy belongs too, it never comes to that. She does say, when her dad disappears, that she might have to start eating her friends, if he doesn't return soon.
He does, return, that is, dressed in a hospital gown. One never quite knows what is on Wink's mind, except he loves Hushpuppy and loved her mother, a mystery we never quite solve. While watching the lazy luscious film, it reminded me rhythmically of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust. The lyrical quality of the film also comes through as well. It was Dash's pen and palette that created this landscape, along with exceptional co-stars, the three women, among them Barbara O. In Beasts it is Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, neither actors, before this illustrious debut who make the illusion tangible.
This beauty is also enhanced I'm sure in the technical presence of Art Academy University, and the San Francisco Film Society. Shot on location in Louisiana and its Ninth Ward, one sees the levy breached. (An editorial aside: Whenever I think about the AAU, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth odor in my nostrils. It's president is responsible for Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's displacement, and subsequently its founders death--okay, she didn't kill them, but they might have lived longer if they hadn't experienced this loss.)
Perhaps what is so remarkable is how natural the actors appear with one another. The mixed race community is a few families large, but though isolated, they are not unaware of what life is like outside The Bathtub island they create for their families.
Who are the beasts, one might ask of herself after the film: the people who plug their sick into a wall or the people who teach their children to fly? There are so many picturesque scenes. Almost all the ones with Hushpuppy in them are keepers (smile). The memory of her father holding her as a baby, juxtaposed with that of a woman holding her and dancing is one, the other is when she cooks a meal with a blow torch and the final is when Hushpuppy talks to the mammoth boars. It's pretty remarkable. Oh, and one more, when Hushpuppy sits buried in crayfish shells.
Another beautiful moment is Hushpuppy's creation story, the story of her parent's first meeting, where everything falls away except their attraction for one another.
The spunky child is pretty remarkable as is her dad. Her life illustrates the fact that it is best if we tells our children the truth, Wink and Hushpuppy's lives are what they are because of this. Hushpuppy tells her father that if he dies her life will be over. He tells her that she will live much longer than he will and that is when she cries.
In the end, they are both crying. Hushpuppy listens to heartbeats in leaves, birds, hogs, and other human beings. She knows this is life's rhythm as she lies down, next to her dad's heart one more time.