Beasts of the Southern Wild

By Terry Ebinger

Hush Puppy navigates the open sea in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Picutres.

What to watch when life is looking grim and you’re searching for a story of resilience and hope?   Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) spins a dreamlike fable.  It starts in a magical landscape that’s facing a great flood.  It’s about the redemption of feeling, and the family as the crucible of initiation.  And it introduces us to some fiercely proud people who know a lot about loss and survival.

After Hurricane Katrina, a young director, Benh Zeitlin, went to Louisiana to make a documentary about the people who had suffered the most from this devastating storm.  After living there for about a year, he decided to tell the story on another level, using the local people as actors. He had just the right set of skills to do this.  His parents were folklore experts at the Smithsonian, so he grew up listening to other people’s stories. As a result, Zeitlin has a remarkable ear for dialect and an astonishing facility for capturing a sense of place.

The film opens at Isle de Jean Charles, an hour and half south of New Orleans, on a road that is being reclaimed by the sea. Our heroine, Hush Puppy (the remarkable Quvenzhane Wallis) is a six-year-old girl who will have to fend for herself in the worst crisis her community has ever faced. 

Early in the film, a teacher, Bathsheba,  shows the children a map of the levee and tells them that a great change is coming.  The land where they grew up will soon be underwater, and their rich Southern Louisiana culture—Creole and Choctaw Indian—is about to be erased.

This story continually contrasts the values of “the dry side” with life on the levee. The residents of the Bayou take pride in their ability to cope with the elements yet “up there on the dry side, they’re so scared of the water. They’re scared of the water just like little babies.”  Later on, we see the difference between this tight-knit community where folks help each other out, and the “dry world” of the hospital and emergency center. As Hush Puppy says, “When people there get sick, they just plug them into the wall.”

The message of this film—that we are all connected and we forget this at our peril–is embodied in the soundtrack.  From the start, we hear the rhythmic lub-dub of a heartbeat. It’s the heartbeat of the world.  The pulse of life that ties us to other people, and to the animals. Then we hear the sound of the coming storm.

As destruction of climate change threatens,  our feelings are stirred up, our emotions are boiling over—and we see all this repressed rage coming out in waves of violence, all across America.  There’s an old axiom when it comes to fairy tales: What we exile from ourselves, or from our culture, turns hostile. Freud called this the return of the repressed. In the film, that revenge is represented by the Aurochs, prehistoric beasts, who remind us that a part of our own nature—our sense of community and connectedness—is about to be extinct, and when that goes, the world will perish.

The girl’s relationship with her father, Wink, takes place on a mythic level, too. Wink is a Wounded King who refuses to feel grief or vulnerability.  He drinks to keep the pain at bay.  He wants Hush Puppy to shut off her feelings, too, so he constantly tells her, “Don’t cry.  “You’re the man. Don’t be a pussy. Don’t be a baby.”  

The only time he’s tender toward her is in that one brief moment when they’re celebrating their survival after the storm. After a few drinks, Wink says. “Hey. have I ever told you the story of your conception?”  Flashback to a sun-drenched scene: A man and woman who are so in love that every time she walks by the stove the water starts to boil all by itself.  The man is taking a nap by the water when an alligator slithers up the bank.  Clad only in her men’s shorts and boots, the woman rushes out and shoots the alligator.

Wink says,  “A few months later, you come into the world.”

 Hush Puppy doesn’t use the word “held.”  She says she recalls her father looking down at her as an infant and carrying her out into the sunlight.  Her mother could be dead, or she could have walked out—either way, she’s gone. 

This story points to the survival strategy of the masculine in modern times.  “Be strong, learn how to bear your grief.”  Yet what is the father suffering from?  A disease of the heart.  He can’t bear the strength of his emotions.  The film shows us the larger cost of the repressed feminine or feeling function on a cultural level, too.  In Louisiana, the local government decided to let this poor, rural part of the levee flood in order to save the higher income homes. So we are also talking about the hard hearted bureaucrats who decided to sacrifice the levee because “these people aren’t people.”

Thecharacters in this film feel so searingly authentic because they aren’t actors—they are the folks Benh Zeitlin met when he was living in Louisiana doing his documentary on Katrina—those who had barely escaped death and destruction by the and were doing their best to rebuild.  The man who plays Hush Puppy’s father, Wink, is Dwight Henry, a baker who worked all night putting his breads into the oven, then shot his key scenes during the day.

Henry said, “I know this situation from the inside out.  I’ve been in that water. I’ve been through these floods I’ve stayed in my home.”  These people have been treated as unimportant and disposable.  But that know something many of us don’t—what it means to bond with a place, to be true to it, to make a vow that you will never leave.

 Zeitlin grew to understand this, and we would do well to consider how we feel about our own communities.  When we have news of one of these big storms, we say,  “Well why don’t the residents just leave? It’s dangerous, there’s nothing left  for them.”  Yet we are forgetting the spirit of a place,  the power of being so deeply connected to the land that we don’t want to leave.  Of seeing the land as integral to our identity and our way of life. 

There’s a lot of idealism in this film, but it shows the dark side, too—the role of alcoholism among people enduring unrelenting hardship, loss, and poverty. Addiction is the downside of living in survival mode.  But there’s no poverty of connection here.  The rest of us have a lot to learn from these folks who have been living on the margins.  It is said that in every big transition, the people who are Outsiders, or living at the edge, will start moving toward the center.  If we’re smart, we’ll begin to listen and learn from them. 

For a long time, depth psychology has been telling us that we need to move away from the hero archetype look for other myths to guide the culture. One of things this film is pointing to is the rebirth of the feminine.  This is the Age of the Female Leader, or the Girl-Queen who listens to her heart. And that’s one of the strongest archetypes in this film.

Here, as in many fairy tales, the mother is missing.  And whenever the girl gets close to this loss, we see these prehistoric beasts—the aurochs,  thundering toward her, like frightening images in a dream.  Every time the girl wants to cry or feels over overwhelmed, they appear.  We hear the cracking of the ice that’s associated with these great hulking creatures waking up— then hear their thunderous hooves.

These dream images finally break through into reality, when Hush Puppy realizes that her father is dying. She then goes on a dream journey, over the floodwaters, where she gets the wisdom she needs in order to survive. 

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Hush Puppy meets a ferryman who takes her to Elysian Fields, a boat that’s anchored way out in the middle of the ocean.  This is a place that’s filled with girls, girls, girls—though there are some toothless old women there, as well. The young women are dressed in wispy little slips and they’re all dancing in the languid heat. 

Some people might see this boat as a den of prostitution.  But that’s not the filmmaker’s intent. When Zeitlin directed the women in that scene, he said, “Look, you’re just dancing with these men. They’re lonely.”  This is a scene about companionship. Elysian Fields is a mythic place. It’s a kind of heaven, where the girl finally meets her mother and gets the initiation she needs.  

The woman Hush Puppy encounters in the ship’s galley is the same one we’ve seen earlier, in a flashback, about her conception.  This gal has prison tattoos near one of her eyes, and she’s cooking up an alligator.  As she stirs, she tells Hush Puppy, “Watch out.  The world is not as easy as they tell you.  You have dreams, but you just can end up a waitress on a boat, with nobody to pay attention to you.”  

At the end of this scene, all the women on the boat are dancing with little girls, petting their heads and holding them close.  It’s a healing scene of all motherless children of the world.  When she returns, Hush Puppy takes a paper bag full of fried alligator and feeds it to her father. So we have come full circle from birth to death.

After Hush Puppy’s dream journey, the aurochs return, thundering, galloping. This time, she doesn’t run.  She turns and faces them, and stands her ground.  She is about to be an orphan and will have to make her way in the world, alone.   One of the aurochs goes down in its knees and bows to her. “You’re my friend,” she says, “kind of”—addressing the beast with wary respect.

In that scene, Hush Puppy befriends her fear and grief.  Then she says, “Now I got to take care of my own.”  She has learned the first law of survival: “When your heart is weak, the big animals smell it. They get hungry and come after you.”  Yet she now she also knows that true strength comes from  facing one’s fear and vulnerability.  

At last, Hush Puppy is ready to bury her father.  She sends the body of father out to sea in a boat—then torches it,  as they light the bodies in the ghats on the River Ganges.  It is a ritual as old as humankind.

At this point, we hear a song, and though the lyrics are hard to decipher, it seems like they are saying, “Here comes the Queen!”  The archetypal message is this: “We have a new cultural leader, one that has both heart and power.”

This film has special importance for us now that we’ve just elected our first female vice president.  The image of a young girl coming into her power is a very potent one for us right now.  We need the feminine values of empathy and compassion to offset the rage and divisiveness we see in America today. In short, we need leadership with heart.

In fairy tales, the key to our survival is how we treat the poor and how we treat the animals.  These are disenfranchised or split off parts of ourselves and of the culture.  Right now, we’re confronting our own narcissism and lack of empathy, as we watch the have-nots suffer disproportionately from climate changes, and from the pandemic.  We’re living through the disintegration of the old forms and institutions, and the healing is going take longer than our lifetimes  Eventually the people who are living on the edge will come together and become the center. So we would do well to listen to what they have to say.

 This film has a very specific message: If we cut off feeling, and our own feminine nature,  we cut off our connection to all beings, and that will come back to bite us in a very scary way. Yet this movie also offers us a path to healing. It shows us that if one thing is broken, everything is affected. In every culture, there are tales of a great flood.  Then there’s the promise of redemption—of new life and a sense of coming home.

Terry Ebinger is a film scholar with over three decades of experience as a depth psychology educator, dream consultant, and seminar leader. Terry’s film classes synthesize art, cultural history, and the language of myth and symbol. Learn more about her work at Cinema and Psyche 

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