‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is a modern fairytale. Modern because it is about a fiercely strong little girl, which is not at all common, and fairytale-like because it is the story of how she comes into contact with unimaginably fantastical struggles. The protagonist, Hushpuppy, tends to hogs, chickens, gators, cats and dogs, coexisting in the wild and free greenery of the Bayou called “The Bathtub”. She has a house of her own and can come and go as she pleases. Her father teaches her to be self-sufficient and physically powerful, in the face of whatever will (and it will, he warns her) come her way. The world beyond The Bathtub is like a mythical land to Hushpuppy, and she is willing to fight for her right to never be a part of it; to remain forever a resident of village. As with all stories, there’s a challenge for the heroine: climate change, which is understood as a problem that the outside world paradoxically creates, then wants to run from. This kind of hypocrisy is not to be tolerated by the people of this watery community. The refuse to be removed from their land or allow it to be destroyed because of some people up the road who don’t appreciate the power of nature and natural humanity. When word spreads about a bad storm coming, many residents of The Bathtub community pack up and leave, but Hushpuppy, her father, and a few other residents refuse to desert. The Bathtub is their home, and no storm can drive them out, especially one that was manmade.
Throughout the film, viewers are hit with crushing sounds, perceivably from Hushpuppy’s amazing imagination. In the scene in which Hushpuppy and her dad brave the storm, the crashing of lightning, thunder, downed trees, rising water, and torrential rain is nearly overwhelming. It quickly goes a step beyond terrifying with Hushpuppy’s imaginings of beastly giant creatures and crashing seemingly unrelated glaciers mixing into the storm track. It’s clear that the intensity of the horror-inducing sounds comes from semi-apocalyptic dreams she has of being overtaken by the ferocious animals who roamed the earth before humans. In The Bathtub, kids go to a school taught by the local medicine woman, and her teachings struck a cord with Hushpuppy: the creatures will rise again, everything will come full circle, you can’t break a piece of the universe and expect it not to collapse in on itself. Her life and death quest takes her and the remaining members of her community through horrific weather, failing health, indecision about how they will exist outside of The Bathtub, and the outside world as institutionalization.
In the face of it all, Hushpuppy, fairy princess of the deepest south, stays determined to live, particularly as she was taught to: breaking crab shells with her bare hands, screaming!, running through muddy marsh waters clad in pajamas and rainboots, exploring. She seeks to understand existence, which is evident in her habit of putting her ear to creatures to listen to their hearts beat. She clearly thinks before she makes a sound- she exists devoting caution to causes that matter: not running wild with firecrackers or starting her stove cooking with a blowtorch, but handling life, death, justice, and honor.
She is a six year old who wants to be remembered by scientists hundreds of years after her people are gone. Mortality is an element in all great fairytales, and in this day and age, when it seems that we hold the keys to the safekeeping of our planet, it is our mortality that must struck in the cords: will we die? When? How? And, even more importantly, have we been living or just surviving? Have our hearts, which Hushpuppy finds so telling and alluring in the story, been beating because we aren’t dead, or because we have something to live for? These are the concerns that I saw raised in the creation of this “Southern Wild” by Behn Zeitlin.