“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece fails, even the smallest piece, the whole universe gets busted.”
Beast of the Southern Wild will no doubt gather many comparisons to last year’s The Tree of Life. Both films have exquisite cinematography. Both are told with lots of philosophical voice-over. Both deal mainly with a parent/child relationship (which may or may not reflect a divine/human relationship). Both are sufficiently esoteric that some people will leave the theater thinking they have been let in on a secret of the universe and others will wonder, “What the hell was that?”
Hushpuppy is a young girl who lives with her father on a small island in the Louisiana backwater. There is a small community that seems to thrive in this isolation. In many ways this is a life of dire poverty. On the other hand, there is joy in this community, even in the hardest of times. Hushpuppy contrasts the life here in “The Bathtub” with life on the dry side of the levee: People on the dry side are afraid of water, but in The Bathtub, that is their everyday environment. The dry folks only have one or two holidays, but this community frequently celebrates just because they can.
When a storm comes, some of The Bathtub people leave, but others, including Hushpuppy and her father, persevere in spite of the danger. After the storm, they all come together to care for one another and to celebrate the life they have, meager though it is.
There is a sense in which The Bathtub is an interface between Paradise and Chaos. This is a place of great beauty. The people here are in a certain harmony with creation. Hushpuppy especially seems to be connected to the natural world. Often we see her listening to the small animals she comes across. There is a section of the film in which Hushpuppy and the rest are removed from The Bathtub. The world they are taken too (our world) seems very cold and sterile, even though we understand it as a place of safety and ample food. But for Hushpuppy and the rest, it is being taken to a strange land that will likely stifle the joys that fill their lives.
It is Hushpuppy’s philosophical reflection that makes up the heart of the film—more so than the plot (again, a similarity to The Tree of Life). But whereas The Tree of Life was closely tied to biblical and theological contemplation, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a more humanistic approach to thinking about our place in the cosmos. Hushpuppy is not the center of the universe, but because of her recognition of how all things fit together, she understands herself (and us all) as an integral part of the universe—a piece of a whole that will not properly function without any particular piece. The harmony of the universe depends on each piece doing what it is meant to do.
There is a bit of magical realism that runs side by side with the stark realism of the film. We see the brokenness of the universe through the coming of aurochs, mythical beasts that we see on a relentless trek to possibly destroy everything. In an ecosystem as fragile as The Bathtub, it is not hard to equate them with the threat of climate change, but it can just as easily be understood as the way the world is broken by injustice, poverty, war, even the relentlessness of death. (Good metaphors are often up to the viewer to assign meaning to.)
Hushpuppy also has one to cry out to in times of fear, her absent mother who “swam away” long ago. When she faces her deepest fear, she and other children go off on a quest across the waters. There, perhaps Hushpuppy finds her lost mother, and brings back a gift from her that serves as a bit of Eucharist between her and her father.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is indeed a challenging film. There is much to be mined in the film, but even those who dig deeply may not find the kinds of treasure they expect or like. There will be those, however, who will discover a wisdom worth consideration.