Where can a story go when its characters are already fearless? Here we have a rowdy community living through hardship, or perhaps more accurately, in spite of hardship. Their homes have been flooded and their world destroyed. Beasts of the Southern Wild forgoes traditional arcs. Rather, it tests its characters again and again to see if they truly believe in their principals.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of Beasts is its ability to render The Bathtub, the world in which these characters live. The world is perhaps incidental to the story - these characters just happen to live in an apocalypse - they’d be equally rambunctious elsewhere. As it is though, the icebergs are half melted and the world is flooded. There’s a massive wall near their home to block the water, and true civilization, or what remains of it, lies on the other side. The Bathtub is a world nearly submerged. Trees and homes are swallowed by massive swathes of dirty brown rivers. They have makeshift boats and a slew of life preservers. There are animals everywhere - horses, pigs, chickens, cattle - all wandering around, serving as pets and waiting to be eaten.
The story itself warbles, giving us small dips and rises, rather than focusing on one broader idea. Certainly there are aspects that move throughout, but it’s largely hard to get a feel for where the story is going or where we are in it. The focus is on Hushpuppy and her father Wink. Hushpuppy is innocent and taking in the world, albeit it with an appreciable bravery. Her father may be more scared than he lets on, but he’s stubborn enough to stick to it. We watch them fight one another only to come together time and again as they have to fight against the rising waters. The film wants to be Hushpuppy’s journey, but given her size and age, her agency is minimized. She watches and learns, she mimics her father.
What draws us in most here are the stunning performances given for Hushpuppy and Wink. Quvenzhané Wallis is a first time actor, and her portrayal of Hushpuppy is among the finest displays of children acting. She is strong and sassy, and she puts forth a relentless confidence. Wink’s interactions with her sell it further. He flightily alternates between showing deep affection for Hushpuppy and being frustrated with her. He’s ill, and watching him angrily avoid the subject is brilliant. Though the film may not have a strong focal point outside of this continued relationship (even then, the relationship has few places to go, it is simply reiterated again and again), by the film’s end, we can see a significant point for Hushpuppy and Wink. It’s enough difference to make our time feel worthwhile. Beasts often feels like a short film, accomplishing little but doing so very well, but by the end we can see better how all that we’ve seen these characters go through makes sense to them. Hushpuppy doesn’t quite understand the world yet, and it’s hard to stay the course knowing what’s on the other side of that wall.
The film creates an entire culture and world. They drink and celebrate constantly. They dump buckets of seafood out on multiple occasions. There’s a serious parallel here to Louisiana, though it isn’t touched upon in the film. That said, it’s hard to view Beasts as some sort of allegory. Louisiana may have had an impact on The Bathtub, from the seafood to the flooding, but the film smartly stays away from this. The world is stunning - it could be a real world visualization of some Myazaki imagery. Beasts is deeply smart and impressive in this way, and the film is worth viewing for this alone. The actual camerawork is almost lo-fi in its presentation. We get rough cuts to falling icebergs and marching beasts. The camera watches our characters almost mockumentary style, honing in from afar and then flittering around nearby them.
Beasts never digs deep enough to hit on anything powerful, but it presents us an incredible world and an incredible relationship. These characters are wonderful, and The Bathtub is unlike anything we’ve seen. It’s a new vision of apocalypse, and an impressive eye toward how humanity would press on in such different ways. This is remarkably good for any film, let alone a directorial debut. It’s a unique vision and brilliant new characters, and they’re worth meeting.