Beasts of the Southern Wild is the kind of movie that speaks to every individual’s basic need to love and be loved. “It’s a story about a 6-year-old girl whose father is dying,” one might say, to succinctly capture the storyline of Beasts, which won awards at last year’s Cannes and Sundance film festivals, and was featured during the American Black Film Festival in Miami last week.
But that would be a disservice to the complex relationship Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) has with her father Wink (Dwight Henry).They live in what looks like a tenement yard, in an area of the Louisiana Delta called “The Bathtub,” where storms have ravished the land. But they and their small community refuse to leave their homes. Then a storm wipes out their meager possessions and they have to move on.
In Benh Zeitlin’s and Lucy Alibar’s script, we see a man, Wink, who doesn’t know what to do with a little girl, so he raises her to be his son. He also knows he’s near his end and tries to teach his daughter all of the things he thinks she needs to know to survive. Such as how to catch a fish with her hands, and that she has to be strong. He keeps telling her, “When I’m gone, you’re going to be king!”
Zeitlin, who also directed and produced the film, chose Wallis from the 4,000 little girls of varying ethnicities who came to audition for the film, based on her presence. He chose Henry, who owned the Buttermilk Drop Bakery across the street from where Zeitlin’s casting office is located, because he thought he’d be perfect for the role.
Beasts is Wallis’ and Henry’s first film; they’ve never acted before. In fact, most of Zeitlin’s cast and crew were new to filmmaking, which is odd because the film has so much life and talent. This is a testament to Zeitlin’s capability as a great filmmaker.
Wallis has the kind of talent that most actresses in Hollywood wish they had. She makes her audience want to wrap their arms around her. You can see the talent in Wallis’ eyes, as they change from fiercely defiant to a scared little girl, wishing her father would just pick her up and hug her.
It’s heartbreaking when he doesn’t, and Hushpuppy finds herself calling to the wind for her mother, “Mama!” Her calls painfully go unheard and Hushpuppy again has to suffer the kind of loneliness no child should feel.
Wink is a man trying to raise his daughter in the only life he knows. He never really tells Hushpuppy, or the audience for that matter, where her mother is. He’s content to paint the picture, though, that Hushpuppy’s mother is the perfect woman, who loved Hushpuppy so much, she gave herself to the sea. Hushpuppy believes these stories. Why would daddy lie?
Wink obviously loves his daughter, but he never quite learned how to show it. So his expressions of love come out more as a man toward his best friend than the tenderness most fathers would show their daughters.
Despite Wink’s awkward style of parenting, Hushpuppy matures quite quickly into a very strong-minded little girl, taking life’s hard times and defiantly staring them down until they submit to her will. Hushpuppy has become the strong person Wink wanted her to be — but at the cost of loss, and life as a nomad.
Throughout the film there’s a question of why Wink chose to raise his child in a wasteland. According to Zeitlin, he wanted to tell the story of the people who choose to stay in their homes after they’d suffered the destruction of hurricanes. These people establish their own community and culture filled with beer and the Cajun delights of the sea, while sending their children to “school” where their “teacher” teaches them life lessons and survival skills rather than how to read and write.
Although Hushpuppy’s upbringing is precarious, to say the least – she lives in her own house that she ends up burning down out of anger – she is growing to be the kind of person who is strong and caring. She tells her audience, in her own childlike understanding, that she knows something about living a hard life, but her father taught her to be strong and keep moving, and that’s what she’s going to do.