Talking in Code
“They’re talking to each other in ways I can’t understand,” says six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) of the chicks and pigs near the trailer where she lives. “Most of the time, they’re probably saying, ‘I’m hungry,’” she adds. “Sometimes they be talking in code.”
As she leans in to listen to a pig’s heartbeat, the camera in Beasts of the Southern Wild leans with her, close on the pig. Cut to Hushpuppy, dressed in rubber boots and orange underwear, picking her way through mud. Yes, you see, her world is immediate and sensual, rife with secrets and codes. The child feels close enough to hear, even if she can’t understand, and in so hearing, she keeps in touch as well with all the stories she’s heard, or maybe the stories you expect she’s heard, being a smart, lonely little girl growing up in a movie about growing up in the Bathtub.
Hushpuppy describes her home, a fictional, especially low-lying area of post-Katrina New Orleans, as “the prettiest place on earth.” Benh Zeitlin’s film accommodates and also complicates her view, with slowed-down, handheld footage insinuating how the child might be enchanted by the commotion of folks drinking and parading and clanging pots. Desperately poor and apparently easily diverted, Hushpuppy’s neighbors are less a set of individuals than a general population, background for her lyrical excursions.
These excursions shape the movie so you might imagine it Hushpuppy’s, and by extension, your own access to an authentic, enthralling subjectivity. But Beasts, winner of this year’s Camera d’Or at Cannes, often feels less intimate than calculated. As a beguiling figment of imaginations—yours, the movie’s, her own—Hushpuppy is at once vaguely emblematic and dauntingly precise: young Wallis’ face is lovely from every possible angle and distance, her hair perfectly knotty, her knees charmingly knobby. As she embodies innocence with a capital I, she observes the beasts around her, both her pets and the aurochs in her mythically inclined mind, prehistoric creatures dressed up like giant wild boars, lumbering ever nearer, metaphors and Sendakian wild things. They stand in here for an end and perhaps a beginning, what comes next, as denizens of the Bathtub learn they’re to be evacuated from their flooded home.
Like other proud, miserable dwellers in the Bathtub, Hushpuppy’s dad, Wink (Dwight Henry), resists the move. Rarely sober and suffering from an unspecified, terminal blood disease, he tells his daughter that people “on the dry side, they’re afraid of the water like a bunch of babies.” Hushpuppy adopts his bravado even as she worries: she’s already lost her mother (“She swam away” when Hushpuppy was a baby), and keeps her present in the form of a Michael Jordan jersey pinned to the wall of the trailer where she lives, separate from her dad’s. When her mother’s voice sounds over a couple of scenes, Hushpuppy might be inspired and maybe frightened, in any event moved to set the trailer on fire when she tries cooking cat food in a pot.
Her daddy arrives to save her, but Hushpuppy hides from him as he staggers through the flames. It’s a moment of crisis that suitably illuminates and confuses their relationship, which is the occasional focus of the movie, adapted by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from her play. Viewed through Hushpuppy’s eyes, Wink veers from tender to terrifying. Her effort to cure him with roots in a jar—courtesy of her teacher, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana)—leads to seeming and quite alarmingly viscceral disaster. During an encounter in the woods, he falls back, felled by what he’s been drinking or his condition. Her eyes going wide, Hushpuppy feels responsible (see: Eve’s Bayou or better, George Washington), and then abandoned, when he vanishes. Wink reappears with the much ballyhooed storm, and they face off again. This time he stays upright long enough to urge her to stand up to the storm. And so she does, roaring with her tiny arms raised, “I’m the man!”, just before he collapses onto a pile of rags and trash.
“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” Hushpuppy narrates. And the whole movie depends on a mélange of traditional myth and neo-neo-realism, images approximating a child’s nightmares and best hopes, her faith in her dad even when he consistently fails to come through. More than once, Wink trains up his little girl to survive; in turn, she envisions a world beyond him, beyond the Bathtub, beyond the beasts. But as Beasts creates effects for what she sees, as it insists on explaining so much, it’s increasingly burdened, less allusive than literal.
As such, the movie lets viewers off a few hooks. Of course, the danger for Hushpuppy is simultaneously physical and emotional, trauma’s effects lasting for lifetimes, whether inflicted by parents or hurricanes. But as the film offers up her serial devastations a kind of poetry. As she and Wink and their cohort rage against those people on the other side of the levee, the authorities would miss their meanings and impose their orders, Beasts of the Southern Wild celebrates the wild, the creative, and the resilient, the bits of history and culture that make and carry on community. Less new than trendy, the celebration helps you to survive Hushpuppy’s tragedy. “When you small,” she sas, “you gotta fix what you can.” And when you’re not, you can watch her do it.