Fantastic Tenderness in Beasts of the Southern Wild

by Elizabeth Crawford

We open on a metal shack. In twilight, the shanty looks cold, inhospitable—surely abandoned. Then, a light inside flickers on. Such is the film’s tone: the seemingly insignificant, illuminated. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is the heir of Italian Neorealism—the post-war film movement that championed honest depictions of the human condition. Disillusioned by the war and its manufactured propaganda, Italian artists sought the drama in the quotidian. In the following, I will explicate Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) within the context of neorealist theory as presented by André Bazin, and further discuss the film’s aesthetics in its employment of magical realism. 

Characteristic of a neorealist film is the use of non-professional actors. Bazin explains that “the nonprofessionals are naturally chosen for their suitability for the part, either because they fit it physically or because there is some parallel between the role and their lives.” (24) Beasts of the Southern Wild is cast entirely with Southern Louisiana locals, and this translates plainly and powerfully on screen. The actors make the words feel lived in, in part because of their preservation of the regional dialect. The language itself—Cajun Vernacular English—is an immediate, expressive, and highly efficient manner of speaking. As a result, the film’s dialogue takes on an unvarnished quality. The local tongue removes any pressure for sprawling soliloquy, and instead gives way to a kind of poetry. Hushpuppy, the film’s six year-old protagonist narrates: “But me and my Daddy, we stay right here. We who the earth is for.” From this we understand that in her world, all that is expressed is only what needs to be. The actors identify with their characters in terms of the social realities that frame their lives. Beasts of the Southern Wild can be read as a response to Hurricane Katrina, but not explicitly so. In the neorealist tradition, specific politics do not invade the film, they simply underscore it. The film is an ode to the defiant spirit of the people in affected communities, as opposed to an overt call to action. Their defiant spirit could not have been captured if not for on-location shooting. Beasts of the Southern Wild would not have achieved the same soulfulness if its local actors had been extracted and planted on a soundstage, for example. The characters they play are embedded in the landscape, so the actors’ comfort within it is vital. Filming in the Louisiana Bayou also allowed the earth to become a character of its own—one with whom we engage throughout the film. 

The Bathtub, the film’s fictional setting, is physically sequestered from the industrial world. Their way of life, easily pegged as regressive—backwards, even—we observe is all the more honest. The levee, built by ‘modern’ society, is in fact a construction of ignorance. Instead of building a dam to hide rising water levels, the people of the Bathtub confront it, and with it, their mortality. 

The people of the Bathtub are acutely aware of their ecological roles. Hushpuppy’s teacher, Miss Bathsheeba, tells her young class with a surprising bluntness that “any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled. The ice caps gonna melt, the water’s gonna rise, and everything south of the levee’s going under… Y’all better learn to survive.” These children do learn, very early on, that Mother Earth plays no favorites, that nature knows no hierarchy. In this way, Beasts of the Southern Wild tackles the emotion, the pathos, of living on a dying planet. Beyond being played by a nonprofessional actor, our protagonist is also a child. Quvenzhané Wallis colors Hushpuppy with a rural unpretentiousness and bravery similar to that of To Kill A Mockingbird’s Scout Finch, but with Atticus’ staggering thoughtfulness. In one of the film’s early scenes, which has numerous iterations, Hushpuppy lifts a baby chick to her ear, listening for what’s inside. It is not simply a point-of-view shot, but a point-of-audition—we hear what she hears. The heartbeat is what connects us, and this moment serves as a near-perfect cinematic articulation of one of Bazin’s arguments. Of neorealist films, he writes “they never forget that the world is, quite simply, before it is something to be condemned.” (Bazin, pg. 21) Beasts of the Southern Wild returns us to a child’s curious gaze, a child who respects the world she comes from—who does not see it as something to control. 

The film’s delicate cinematography allows each moment to swell with its requisite drama, in the way Bazin describes. The effectiveness of the narrative comes not from the events necessarily, but from the moments in between: the moments of fragility, the flashes of vulnerability—Hushpuppy blinking through tears as she tells her father “No crying.” Neorealism is keeping the camera there. 

After Hushpuppy’s father, Wink dies, she sends his flaming corpse adrift in the same boat he taught her to fish in. The boat recedes toward a horizon of leafless trees. It is a strong wide shot, but a few seconds in, the frame quivers—reflecting, perhaps the slightest falter in Hushpuppy’s spirit. She is a powerful young girl, but she has just lost her father. Hushpuppy has been neglected in her childhood, yet it is here, in this moment, that she is truly alone for the first time. She watches her world die, and her father die within it; her father, who is her world. These scenes are shot with a handheld camera, tracking the child without invading her space. It is a welcomed distance, as if Hushpuppy invites us to share her pain. The film’s cinematography ascribes a visual artisanship to the quotidian story of a father and daughter. 

The film is not strictly a portrait of the post-Katrina south, but it creates a mythology that enhances the social realities that informed it. Academic Stephen Hart describes magical realism as “creating a portrayal of reality which—despite its magical aura—is rooted in the ‘particular’ and the ‘real’.” (261) The prehistoric element of the film’s magical realism only further impresses on the spectator the significance of the natural world. The aurochs, a monstrous, ox-like creature, arrives resolutely, declaring the negative—that at no point in all of Earth’s history has the environment ever belonged to man. 

The background of an environmental apocalypse heightens all fears and all joys experienced by the characters. If it is fear, it means the total end of the world. Should it be joy, it is in vibrant spite of the total end of the world. The environmental themes are clear, speaking to the sweeping apathy of the current moment. This is juxtaposed with the perspective of a child who sees herself as part of the environment rather than apart from it. “I see that I’m a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes things right,” she says. Climate change is something that people readily resign themselves to, but as a child, Hushpuppy approaches the subject with a remarkable stoicism. She does not think herself bigger than she is. 

There is a seamlessness with which the magical elements fit into the film, as myth and lore already saturate Louisiana culture. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the legend of the aurochs is one taught in school. What is ‘particular’ and ‘real’ about the aurochs? It is an indomitable force, the titular beast. Such fantastical elements reinforce our understanding of Hushpuppy’s inner life—there is an emphasis on her minisculity, her smallness, her perceived insignificance. It is a fable, one which she creates. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a surreal treatment of abandonment and neglect. Hushpuppy, frightened by herself, asks, “Momma? I think I broke something.” She is convinced that she has toppled the universe, that she is to blame for the end of the world. This comes after she finally asserts herself, after she finally shouts back at her father, and as a consequence, icebergs calve and literal beasts are freed from their frozen chambers. Magical realism, then, becomes a mode to depict trauma. In defying traditional notions of realism—in rejecting neorealism’s rejection of fantasy—Beasts of the Southern Wild inhabits it far more intimately. 

Works Cited –

Bazin, André. “What Is Cinema?” What Is Cinema? University of California Press. 2005. p. 16–40. 

Hart, Stephen M. “From Realism to Neo-realism to Magical Realism: The Algebra of Memory.” Romance Studies. 2012. p. 251-267. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Dir. Benh Zeitlin. Cinereach, 2012. Film.