“Beasts of the Southern Wild”: From the Mouth of a Child

beasts-southern-wild-2
by Herbert H. Stein

One of the more unexpected and unusual Oscar nominees for best picture this year was Beasts of the Southern Wild, a semi-mythic story narrated by a five or six year old girl living with her father in a sprawling squatter community called “the bathtub” on the south (outer) side of the levee somewhere in Louisiana. As a story told by a child, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a blend of fantasy and reality.

 

Hushpuppy tells us at the outset that she lives with her Daddy in the bathtub. In fact, we see that they have separate dwellings, both ramshackle shacks. She has no mother, and from what we glean has been alone with her father, Wink, for nearly all her life. That’s the good part. In the course of the film, she will face the near annihilation of her home and community and the illness and death of her father. Beasts of the Southern Wild gives us a fictional glimpse of the oft-cited aphorism, “What doesn’t kill you makes you strong,”

The film also has its own interior psychological reality in which Hushpuppy’s rage at her father pushes her to destroy everything that has kept her safe and warm, much like the little boy in Where the Wild Things Are. The difference is that the destruction from that boy’s rage is all in fantasy, allowing him to return to the safety of his family. Beasts of the Southern Wild is ultimately a tale of a young girl’s journey from a warm safe nest to independence and self-sufficiency, giving it much of its mythic quality.

As Hushpuppy introduces herself we see her in a surrounding that is outwardly marked by poverty, but is actually rich and nurturing. She plays with her numerous “pets,” a wide assortment of farm animals that live in complete harmony with her and each other. We first see her using mud and water to create a little nest of sorts for a baby bird. As she moves amongst the animals, she puts her ear to them to listen for their heartbeats, and for a moment we hear a heartbeat.

To this is added an element of manic excitement as her father, Wink, rings a bell and yells out, “Feed-up time!” Hushpuppy answers responsively, “Feed-up Time!” The excited feed-up is for the animals as well as for Hushpuppy and Wink. We see him throwing a part of a chicken onto a grill and see Hushpuppy and all the animals eating excitedly in one joyful “feed-up.” The film begins with images of babies being cared for and fed.

“Ain’t that ugly over there? We got the prettiest place on Earth,” Wink tells her as they sit on a little raft looking over the levee at some kind of industrial complex. Hushpuppy’s voice-over narrative continues the theme of a joyful, free community living with nature.

“Daddy says, up above the levee, on the dry side, they’re afraid of the water like a bunch’a babies. They built the wall that cuts us off. They think we’all gonna drown down here, but we aint goin’ nowhere.” To the sound of joyful Cajun music, she continues as we watch the happy folk of the bathtub in raucous celebration, “The bathtub’s got more holidays than the rest of the world. Daddy always saying that up in the dry world they got none of what we got. They only got holidays but once a year. They got fish stuck in plastic wrappers. They got their babies stuck in carriages. And chicken on sticks and all that kind’a stuff.”

We see Hushpuppy reaching with her hand into a tub full of fish. Although with adult eyes we may sense something askew, I think we can- not help feeling the pull of this image of a world in which nurture comes directly, without wrappers and sticks and manufactured products. (Actually, one of the unanswered anomalies of the film is that we never fully under- stand how the inhabitants of the bathtub get the manufactured clothing and other products that are present when needed, even explosives that we take for granted later in the film.)

But there is a counterpoint. Hushpuppy tells us, “One day the storm’s gonna grow, the ground’s gonna sink and the water’s gonna be so high, they’re aint gonna be no bathtub, just a whole bunch of water.” The cheering and fire- works resume as she goes on, “But me and my Daddy, we stay right here. We is who the Earth is for.”

With this statement of purpose, the music becomes brassier, leading to the film’s title. In this subtle way, we are first told that the warm supportive image of Mother Nature exists beside a competing image of a Mother Nature that can be cruel, one which must be acknowledged but not submitted to. We now begin to see that the hypomanic quality of the opening segment is in part a defensive style designed to sustain Hushpuppy through the dangers of this second, more negative maternal image.

“Meat. … Meat, meat, meat. Every animal is made out of meat. I’m meat, y’all ass is meat. Everything is part of the buffet of the universe.”

So says Bathsheba, a strong looking woman who appears to run a makeshift school for the children who live in the bathtub. Her message is one of warning and preparation for the worst. She lifts up her skirt, pointing to a tattoo on her thigh that shows tiny men with spears facing giant buffalo-like creatures.

“This here is an Orox, a fierce, mean creature that walked the face of the Earth back when we all lived in the caves. And they would gobble them cave babies down right in front of the cave baby parents. And the cave mans, they couldn’t do nothin’ about it cause they was too poor and too small. Who up in here thinks that the cave man was sittin’ around cryin’ like a bunch of pussies? Y’all gotta think about that cause any day now fabric of the universe is comin’ unraveled, ice caps gonna melt, water’s gonna rise and everything south of the levee is goin’ under. Y’all better learn how to survive now.” Preparing to meet the apocalypse with- out fear or self pity is the credo of those who occupy the bathtub and this film.

Hushpuppy hears this speech with its parts connected. She tells us about how the “Orox” once ruled the world. “If it wasn’t for giant snow balls and the iced age, I wouldn’t even be Hushpuppy. I would just be breakfast.” In her mind, the melting of the ice caps means the freeing of the terrible Orox, giving a fantasy that can express both external fears and inner impulses. We might say that the Orox carries the bad, destructive maternal image and also gives expression to Hushpuppy’s rageful, destructive impulses.

That un-nurturing environment now plays out in a more direct way as Wink is unaccountably missing at “feed-up time.” We see Hushpuppy wandering around looking for him, calling for him, even screeching. She expresses her fears in the voice-over: “Kids that got no Mama, no Daddy and nobody, they gots to live in the woods and eat grass and steal underpants.“ We also see some identification with the cruel mother, the Orox: “If Daddy don’t get back soon, it’s gonna be time for me to start eatin’ my pets.”

She turns down an offer of help from the unsuspecting Bathsheba, even turning down an offer of food as she tells Bathsheba that her Daddy will pick her up. Even in this early part of the film, we see a seemingly unnatural pull to independence.

She turns instead to her more specific mental representation of maternal love and protection.

“Everything we still got from Mama I keep in my house. Daddy says the first time she looked at me it made her heart beat so big that she thought it would blow up. That’s why she swam away.”

Hushpuppy takes down a basketball jersey that we presume was her mother’s, putting it over a chair by the table as she puts something from a can in a pot and then adds what looks like cat food. Soft music is playing and we hear an adult woman’s gentle voice talking with Hushpuppy, who looks at the chair with the jersey.

“Hi, my sweet baby.” “Hi, Mama.” “Hushpuppy, what you doing now? … You

being good like I told you?” “Yes, Mommy.” As the child lights the gas flame with a blow

torch, we hear a soft female vocal, singing something with a recurring theme, “You make me happy,” and Hushpuppy responds to it, “That’s pretty, Ma.”

“You’re pretty, Hushpuppy.”

Hushpuppy carries with her an ideal maternal image that reflects an image of herself as sweet and good and feminine. There is no evidence of any actual memories of her mother, who may have died or simply left. It is an image constructed from the stories she has been told by Wink about a mother strong enough to res- cue him from an alligator, but overwhelmed by her love for her daughter; a mother so beautiful that the gas flames on the burner would start up when she came near. She is an internalized feminine model for protection, love and identification, a benign, unerring superego to counter the somewhat harsher Bathsheba. She incorporates the strong, nurturing features of Wink without the sometimes frightening limitations of the real parent. Hushpuppy will continually return to this internalized mother when her other defenses are overwhelmed.

Wink’s unexplained absence is only the prelude to calamity. The calamity which strikes hits at virtually every level. For the viewer it is a combination of external blows to the secure bubble of Hushpuppy’s world, but the film makes it explicitly clear that from the young girl’s perspective, the boundaries of internal and external are blurred. From her point of view, she causes the calamity with her violent rage. Later in the film, she puts it into a simple sentence, “Mama, I broke everything.”

It starts off well enough. As Hushpuppy is talking to her mother while cooking her pot of food, she hears her father grumbling outside. She runs out excitedly to greet him, eager to tell him that she learned a lot while he was gone. But Wink looks dazed and grumpy. He is wearing an emergency room gown and plastic ID bracelet, signaling to us that he has been in a hospital, but prompting Hushpuppy to ask why he is wearing a dress and a bracelet. He tells her to leave him alone, to go to her own house, chasing her away. When shortly afterwards he starts feed-up time, Hushpuppy, obviously in a fit of anger, turns up the gas under her cooking pot to the max, creating an explosion and fire that seems to partly surprise her. Hiding under a cardboard box not far from the fire, she draws a picture of herself and her Daddy to leave for posterity “even if my Daddy kills me.” Wink is frantically searching into the fire, calling her name. When she leaves her hiding place and runs out, he chases her.

To this point, the deed has still not been done. Wink catches her, yelling. When she yells back he slaps her across the face, forcing her to fall down, shouting “See what you done.” We see the intense regret on his face, but that only seems to remind him of his concerns:

“I got to worry about you all the damn time. You killing me! You killing me!”

Hushpuppy gets to her feet and says, “I hope you die. And after you die, I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself.”

She makes a fist and punches him over the heart. He looks at it, looks at her with a woozy expression and falls to the ground unconscious as we hear a crack of thunder. It leaves no doubt that from the child’s perspective her rage has caused this.

I realized at some point that I had essentially made the same mistake myself by reacting to what happened as if Wink’s behavior and the confrontation with Hushpuppy set in motion the film’s tragic events. It was as if I was accepting the psychological reality that Hushpuppy’s rage caused the storm and Wink’s illness.

It is not clear whether the thunderclap we heard is part of an actual storm, something from Hushpuppy’s mind or in the intermediate space between the film’s internal and external reality. There will be a terrible storm, seemingly the one that Hushpuppy had “predicted” in the film’s opening moments. It will drive many of the inhabitants from the bathtub and will cover the entire bathtub in life crushing water. But that is only the public calamity. The more personal trauma is that Wink, who has not died in the scene we have just witnessed, is in fact ill and dying, a tragedy that will challenge all of Hushpuppy’s resilience.

For the adult viewer, the storm and Wink’s ill- ness are part of the external world and the inevitable cracking of the fragile support sys- tem that the film provides for the little girl. But we also cannot help empathizing with Hushpuppy’s belief that she has caused all of this with her murderous rage directed at her father. She looks around anxiously, watching her father’s twitching body and hearing more thunder that she now associates with the cracking of the polar ice. She runs for help, crying out at one point, “Mama, I think I broke something.”

She runs to Bathsheba, showing her the ID bracelet and telling her that her Daddy fell down. Rather than go with her, Bathsheba puts some roots in a bottle and sends Hushpuppy back. When she gets to the spot, her father is gone and she imagines that he has turned into a tree or a bug. She leaves the bottle in a tree trunk. She then puts into words what we call “magical thinking.” “The whole universe depends on everything

fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will be busted.”

We see ice flows breaking in avalanches and a giant “Orox” enclosed in ice. The violent and rapacious Orox will soon be free, a representation of Hushpuppy’s murderous rage as well as the result of it.

What we see next, in the body of the film, is a back and forth struggle between hope and despair in the course of which the film teaches us about resilience.

Wink revives himself and his paternal role to see himself and Hushpuppy through the storm, telling her that it’s his job to keep her alive. She comments afterwards that those animals that didn’t have a Daddy to put them in a boat drowned in the flood.

But, everything is now covered in water, much as predicted. Sitting on her father’s flat- boat at night, Hushpuppy calls out into the darkness, “Mama, is that you? I’ve broken everything.”

As we watch the steady movement of the herd of giant Orox, she says,

“Strong animals know when your hearts are weak. That makes them hungry and they start coming.”

As she and Wink begin to find members of the community, hope arises again. Watching them celebrate, Hushpuppy tells us about the community defenses against depression,

“For the ones we never find, we make a funeral the bathtub way, with no cryin’ allowed.”

Bathsheba is still saying that the salt in the water will kill everything, to which Wink says, “I got it under control.” He teaches Hushpuppy survival skills, both lessons in fishing and les- sons in toughness, such as “beasting” the crab she is eating, tearing it with fingers and teeth rather than opening it carefully with a knife.

In a hopeful moment, Hushpuppy tells us, “It wasn’t no time to sit around cryin’ like a bunch of pussies. We’re gonna make a camp right on top of the bathtub. We got enough animals to eat until the water goes down.”

Nevertheless, with Wink ill and the water not receding, we see the herd of hungry Orox tearing through a deserted town. Hushpuppy says,

“Two weeks later, everything started to die.”

Defiantly, Wink and two other men attempt to resolve the problem by blowing a hole in the levee, stuffing a dead alligator with explosives. He says, “I aint starving to death while the people go grocery shopping and all that.” He tells Hushpuppy he’s “gonna fix everything the way it was.” It gives Hushpuppy newfound hope, despite Bathsheba’s warning that if they destroy the levee, they’ll all be taken to shelters.

“Daddy says, ‘Brave men don’t run from their home.’ The entire universe depends on every- thing fitting together just right. If you can fix the broken piece, everything can go right back.”

In fact, it is Hushpuppy who sets off the explosion that breaks open the levee, causing the water to recede from the bathtub and seemingly empowering her in reality as we have seen her empowered in fantasy. The water recedes, but Hushpuppy tells us,

“It didn’t matter that the water was gone. Sometimes you could break something so bad that it can’t get put back together.” Everything is dying.

It is at this low point that she teaches us the essence of resilience, not always having a solution, but always seeking one. Seeing her father looking ill, she retrieves the bottle of herbs from the tree trunk, saying,

“When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.”

The film suggests important factors in developing resilience: a strong, positive maternal attachment and internalized maternal image; external supports, in this case in the form of a tight-knit community; and specific defenses against hopelessness supported by the culture, an identification with toughness, a turning to anger over depression, identifications with ideals of strength.

Now that the waters have receded, the film focuses on the central trauma that will test Hushpuppy’s resilience, Wink’s illness. He tries to help Hushpuppy deal with it by toughening her further, inciting her to a manic state as they throw things at one another, but when he stumbles down, she tells him, “You think I don’t know. You think I can’t see?” He tells her “No cryin’” and offers her a drink of whatever alcohol he’s been drinking. She asks him if he’s “gonna be dead” and if he’s going to leave her alone. He denies it at this point, then pumps her up into an excited state again, getting her to show him her muscles and arm wrestle with him.

“You the man! Who the man?” “I’m the man!”1 But the Orox keep coming: “Strong animals

have no mercy. They’re the kind of animals that eat their own Mamas and Daddies.”

In fact, the remaining inhabitants of the bathtub are rounded up and taken to a shelter/hospital where they receive caring treatment that is nevertheless cold and impersonal. A momentary view of Hushpuppy in a demure little girl’s dress helps to make us feel that she does not belong in a world that cannot under- stand who she is.

Ultimately, Wink, Hushpuppy and the other inhabitants of the bathtub make an escape back to their homes, but in the process the film’s central trauma comes to a head. We hear doctors warning Wink that without an operation he will die. As they are escaping, Wink tries to send Hushpuppy away, telling her, “I’m not trying to get rid of you. I can’t take care of you no more. … I’m dyin’. My blood’s eatin’ itself.”

Now he uses the same tough love to tell her the truth that he has been keeping from her.

She says, “Don’t be sayin’ things about dyin’.”

“Everybody Daddies die.” “Not my Daddy!”’ “Yeh, your Daddy!” Even in a fantasy, this is a lot for a kindergarten-aged child, and she turns to her one stable source of inner strength to prepare herself. “Everybody lose the thing that made them.

That’s even how it’s supposed to be in nature. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.”

We now enter a somewhat dream-like sequence in which Hushpuppy leads a group of four girls out into the water, where they swim and use a small life-saver float to find a little boat manned by one grizzled captain.

The boat, itself, has the moral certainty of her mother. When Hushpuppy tells the captain, “I’m goin’ by my mom,” he responds, “That’s a good place to go” and later adds, “This boat will take you where you need to be.”

He takes them to a “floating catfish shack” named “Elysian Fields.” There the children meet women who dance with male customers. The music is of the type we heard when Hushpuppy was talking with her mother.

She finds a sweet looking and sounding African American woman who takes her under her wing, showing her how to batter and cook alligator, along with a little advice for life.

“Let me tell you somethin’. When you’re a child, people sayin’ life is gonna be all happy and hunky-dory and all that bullshit, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not. So you need to get that out of your head right now. … One day everything on your plate goin’ to fall on the floor and nobody gonna pick it up for you. It’s gonna be all on you. … So smile girl, cause nobody likes a pity party….”

She holds Hushpuppy in her arms and dances with her.

“This is my favorite thing. I can count all the times I been lifted. I can count all the times I been lifted on two fingers.” We see the first, when Wink lifts her after her birth.

With this magical resupply of maternal sup- port and advice for the coming trial, Hushpuppy, with the other three girls, heads back to face the oncoming beasts. As she approaches the hut where her father is dying, the herd comes up behind her. She turns to face them, stopping them in their tracks with her stare as Wink looks on. They kneel and looking into the lead Orox’s eye, she says,

“You’re my friend kind of. … I gotta take care of mine.”

Having faced her demons, internal and external, fortified with maternal holding, she greets her dying father, feeds him some alligator, and they each shed a tear.

In the final scene, we see her lighting fire to his body and sending it off on a little flatboat into the water, then leading a raucous community of bathtub people away from the site of the funeral.

The film gives us a fantasy that a Kindergarten-aged girl can move from the womb of childhood to self-sufficiency. Perhaps it is a fantasy aimed at those children who must live in a fragile world with little parental sup- port in need of internal sources of strength.

Hushpuppy tells them, “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away and when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I’m a little piece of a big, big universe and that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they gonna find it all. They gonna know once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the bathtub.”

 

1.Anyone who has seen the film knows that this is not a denial of Hushpuppy’s femininity but an attempt to tough- en her up. Throughout the film he casually calls her “man”, something that he appears to use in a gender neutral way. The film gives her a tough femininity.

 

From PANY Bulletin, Spring, 2013 51:1

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One Comment on ““Beasts of the Southern Wild”: From the Mouth of a Child”

  1. archdriver Says:

    Cant quite get excited about this movie. Cute little girl and good presence on the screen…. Thought the father was good actor as well. Struggle to see any subtlety of symbolism in the aurochs., except facing your worst fears with courage.

    If the theme is real world ‘shit happens and you gotta deal with it instead of being a pussy’ then, it woulda been more consistent to have the auroch reach down and bite her in two , swallow her whole. and I woulda dealt with that.

    I bet Wink could drink $20-$30 /day of cold beer !

    How they keep it cold anyway? What kinda gas do it take
    to run that old pick up boat…. not to mention the snazzy speed boat. Bring me another bottle of booze off the freedom isle.

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