When my dad called more than eight years ago, his voice shaking “Hi Kate” when I answered the phone, I knew something serious had happened, so I sat down. After he told me he had pancreatic cancer, he cried. I felt guilty, in that moment, that I was relieved to be living far from home, because I’d never seen him cry, and it terrified me. After I hung up, I wandered through my apartment, a child at 22, eventually crouching in the fetal position on the living room floor. I desperately wanted to hug him, but he was 400 miles away, so I hugged myself.
Beasts of the Southern Wild brought me back to that place, clasping my knees on the Berber carpet of a Maryland apartment complex. Metaphorically speaking, of course, because the first time I saw it was at the Sundance Film Festival while sitting next to a new editor, a very important man who I was quite keen to impress. Instead, the film reduced me to so many tears – an entire packet’s worth of tissues, to be exact – and the editor felt compelled to lean over incrementally through the third act to ask whether I was okay. I would’ve been mortified had I not been so moved.
I knew then that Beasts of the Southern Wild was like nothing else I’d see at Sundance; as 2012 has soldiered on, the qualifier has rippled further to eclipse most mainstream releases. I’m clearly not the only one who holds onto that belief, as the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, among countless other accolades. I presumed back in Park City that the person who wrote this movie must’ve suffered the same hardships that I did – and it’s true, co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar began penning the play Juicy and Delicious, upon which this film is based, amid her father’s life-threatening heart surgery.
While I’m fiercely happy to see the film earning so much recognition, I also feel a bit protective of its effect on me. Beasts of the Southern Wild is something of a litmus test; how it moves you (or doesn’t) is a worthy exploration unto itself. It’s a fable told around a campfire, weaving together themes of mortality and heroism, a reaffirmation of roots, and a battle cry to fight for the things that made you, feed you, inspire you. But most of all, it’s a lesson: You will watch your parents die, and they will teach you how to do it – just as naturally as they taught you how to walk and talk and eat and tie your shoelaces. And it will hurt like hell.
Set in the fictional world of The Bathtub, located off the Louisiana coast, Beasts of the Southern Wild immerses us in the unapologetically spirited lives of its residents – people who live in shacks made of found objects, swig moonshine at all hours of the day, sleep with their livestock and fish for their food from the surrounding waters. Our tiny narrator, 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), investigates the heartbeats of every creature that crosses her path, marvels at the idea that folks across the levy eat fish wrapped in plastic and confine babies to carriages, and chimes, “The Bathtub’s got more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” Director Benh Zeitlin and his crew lived in southern Louisiana for months before filming began, a detail that spills onto the screen, making quick work of entrenching the audience in The Bathtub, imparting a yearning to grab a sparkler and run screaming with the pack. The sense of community, of joy, of harmony with their surroundings, is palpable.
There are countless themes bubbling beneath the surface of Beasts of the Southern Wild, but the film employs a grace that keeps them from reading as an agenda. The displaced homeless, the gap between rich and poor, post-Katrina Louisiana – it’s all there, wrapped in the garb of a rain boot- and undershirt-clad kid undertaking a fantastical plight. Hushpuppy is imminently lovable, spewing zingers like, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the whole universe will get busted” while conducting her charmed life among these people and their creations, as her father Wink (Dwight Henry) maintains order among the chaos. It’s mind-blowing that Wallis and Henry came to this film as untrained actors; their performances are wrenching, faceted, guttural. They are the emotional touchstones to this world created of imagination, and that’s no easy task.
The fairy-tale beginnings take a turn, as is wont to happen, when Wink disappears. Hushpuppy busies herself cooking a stomach-churning concoction of canned foods on the stove of her camper, making imaginary conversation with her absent mother’s basketball jersey. Wink returns in a hospital gown, Hushpuppy’s dinner explodes, her house burns down and we’re suddenly gripped with the knowledge that this charming, wise child doesn’t actually have the chops to make it on her own.
What ensues is the convergence of all Hushpuppy’s fears as her father’s illness deepens, setting off a cataclysmic turn of events involving natural and mythological phenomena. As the rain of a massive storm drums the roof of their house, leaking through every unsealed opening, Wink tugs inflatable plastic floaties onto Hushpuppy’s skinny arms and yells, “I’m your daddy – it’s my job to make sure you don’t die.” If a lump grows in your throat at this moment, there’s a reason: The lesson has begun, and – as beautiful as it looks through the eyes of someone with such youthful, uncomplicated vision – the steely resolve that seeps in slowly for Hushpuppy is a reminder that we’re always too young when such a situation is wrenched upon us.
My father died nine months and two weeks after he made that first phone call to me. I was always struck by the morbid poetry of that fact: nine months to come into this world, nine months to leave it. I first saw Beasts of the Southern Wild two weeks before the eighth anniversary of that call, and watching Hushpuppy’s arc from starry-eyed child to disillusioned hero could not have shattered my heart any more succinctly. I love this movie something fierce – there is not enough room in my heart for this manner of adoration. The story is so personal that it lives in my veins, and I’ll always be thankful to Zeitlin and Alibar for crafting a beautiful tale that reaffirms my own journey. As Hushpuppy laments, “I wanna be cohesive,” it’s something I’ve spent my post-daddy life reconciling, because when he died, a piece of my identity went with him. Every time Hushpuppy jutted her jaw, dug in her heels and glared away a hurdle, I wanted to hug her. But she was a million miles of celluloid away, and it made me realize that, after all these years, I’m still hugging myself into cohesion.
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens today in select cities.