Perhaps by now you have seen an episode of the TV show Swamp People. Pretty gnarly for sure. But those folks don’t hold a candle to the real swamp people in the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here is a brief synopsis of this film— “In a forgotten but defiant bayou community cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee, a six-year-old girl exists on the brink of orphanhood. Buoyed by her childish optimism and extraordinary imagination, she believes that the natural world is in balance with the universe until a fierce storm changes her reality. Desperate to repair the structure of her world in order to save her ailing father and sinking home, this tiny hero must learn to survive unstoppable catastrophes of epic proportions.”
Let’s start with the big pluses of this film. First and foremost there is a remarkable star turn by Quvenzhane Wallis (try saying that first name three times quickly) who plays Hushpuppy the real hero of this out of the way, out of the box, dysfunctional, survivalist world on the bayou. I fully expect her to get an Oscar nomination. She is that remarkable, and the camera loves her. She’s also a beautiful child.
Secondly, there is the capacity of this film to take you away to a world you likely know nothing about for one hour and thirty one minutes. It goes by quickly. There is no filler in this film, but there is a disjointedness to it, for a good reason. It tells the story from Hushpuppy’s point of view, and so it is episodic in character. Her world is threatened and she is vulnerable. She misses and talks to her absent mother. She lives in her own trailer in the swamp. And she tries to love and help her ne’er do well Dad. It might be useful if they had somewhere along the way played Fogerty’s ‘Born on the Bayou’ which would have suited this film to a T, but I digress.
Thirdly, there is the remarkable sense of community displayed by the swamp people. Whether you love them or hate them, they stick together and help each other survive in the swamp. They live not merely in the swamp but off the swamp, with no evidence of their working at all for the outside world. They are seemingly self-sufficient…. until the big storm upsets the balance of things.
Fourthly there is the magical cinematography. This is a beautiful if grainy film full of iconic images and scenes, most of them focused on Hushpuppy and her beautiful countenance. You might think that people who live such catch as catch can lives would be constantly miserable, or bored, or tired, but remarkably they are often joyful, celebratory, and constantly sharing food with one another. It raises major questions about what it means or takes to be happy in life.
This film is not a masterpiece, but it is a consistently fascinating film, which keeps your interest right to the last frame. Swamp people do things their own way. And in a tough world, it turns out that though she is a wee little girl, Hushpuppy is ‘the man’– A person who seeks to live in harmony with nature and human nature, with man and beast, with family and friends.
If you find yourself looking for a truly different story that escapes the cliches and boringly repetitive patterns of most movies, then ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is just the film for you. Indeed, it could have borrowed the Python subtitle ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’.