An Analysis of Beasts of the Southern Wild by Maria Beane This is the story of Hushpuppy, an abandoned little girl.
In the Bathtub of Louisiana she lives alone in a house near her father’s, and her mother is long gone. She looks for her mother in the heartbeat of nature, listening to its life force as though she might find the mother that she doesn't know in the heartbeat of an owl or a kitten or a leaf. All she has to go on is the visceral memory of the heartbeat that she lost when she came into the world. She never knew her, but Hushpuppy’s life is a quest to find her. “I’m going to find my momma” she says. Her momma disappeared and didn’t die. She’s somewhere to be found. Her neglectful, abusive and angry father Wink throws out scraps to Hushpuppy, giving her enough to survive on and enough to keep her wanting more. She can’t survive alone, and forgives him all. She needs him, she loves him and she hates him. Her father means security but he also means danger. He can nurture and protect her, but he can also rage at her and abandon her. His occasional moments of loving fathering are precious to Hushpuppy, like the peaceful feeling of belonging that she has as they glide through the Bathtub on Wink’s barge, but the contrast to his abusive anger and rejection must have been traumatically confusing to her. Forced to survive on her own, Hushpuppy lives in a world of magical thinking, where she grandiosely controls nature and believes in her special powers. Life is mysterious and terrifying. She fills the gaps of her knowledge in with her own folklore, piecing together snippets of what she hears from others. She fears her powers, like the ability to kill her father, when she punches him in the heart and he falls to the ground in a stupor. She fantasizes that the force inside her can bring on storms and melt icebergs, causing calamity. She is brave and daring, and unaware of the dangers around her. In one of his more rational moments, Wink manages to save her from a raging fire set by Hushpuppy in a rage against him. Her father calls her man, tells her she’s the King of the Bathtub, lets her win at arm wrestling and wants to teach her to fish with her hands. It is unclear at one point whether she is a girl or a boy. She introduces herself as Emma at the beginning of the movie, or did I imagine that? I was confused about her gender for some of the film.Trying to fish with her bare hands leaves Hushpuppy in pain, and I had a sense that she wanted to cry but didn’t want to disappoint her father, by being herself, a vulnerable little child, and a girl at that. He wants he to be a boy, I sense, not because he would value a boy more, but because he sees a girl as more vulnerable, more delicate, softer, and more unlikely to survive in the harsh world. What does this do to Hushpuppy’s femininity? Someone puts a little white shift dress on her after the storm, and this contrasts with the t shirt and shorts she wore before the storm. Her little girlness is evidenced but she remains the same. Her love for him, her need of him and her fear of him forbid her from stamping her feet to demand what is rightfully hers; his love, attention, care, dedication, tenderness. His instability as a father puts her in a constantly vigilant place, a place where she has to watch out for herself, and be tough. But it’s also a place where she can’t risk
Film4 PT142 How the Mind Unfolds Dr. White
1.9.2013 Maria Beane
upsetting him, because he could abandon her again. He is all she has. He is everything to her. Hushpuppy’s precocious development together with her own inner strength produce a brave, admirable character. But her vulnerability and her need continually poke through her armor. She looks for her momma in faraway lights, and when she finds a momma that will give her some food, give her some words and hold her to her breast it seems that Hushpuppy has finally gotten where she wants to be. The soft sensuous ambience of the bar where the girls end up is magical. The scene of the hookers in their silk slips, holding the starving little girls to their breasts as they sway to the music potently evoked the intimate moments of infancy. The little girls were drinking in the nurturing attention, the softness, the sweetness, the murmured words. But Hushpuppy hears the call to return to her father. Was the call from inside herself, impelling her to go back to the father she loves and hates, the father that loves her and mistreats her? His illness looms above her, and she is pulled away from the mother universe. It seems though that this nurturing moment has given Hushpuppy a burst of energy and the strength to face her uncertain future. And all along the way, she is confronted by the Beasts. At first they seem to be normal sized boars, encountered in the woods. But as time progresses it becomes clear that these beasts are growing. When they show up she fears them, they are intimidating and threatening to her. In the Beasts’ final appearance, they lumber after Hushpuppy, getting closer and closer as she runs from them. Then she stops and turns, confronting them and looking them in the eye. There is a moment of defiance, or of recognition. The Beasts kneel down before her and then turn and go away. Hushpuppy seems victorious. Are the Beasts her angry and murderous feelings, toward her mother that abandoned her, and toward her father that has abandoned her many times and is going to again? Does she turn some of that anger toward herself by forcing herself to be the good daughter, compelled to be present at her father’s death bed, ready to carry on and live life the way he has taught her to in bursts here and there? By confronting the Beasts does Hushpuppy come to terms with the life she was given? Is this what happens to all of us, that at a certain point the parents that we love and hate, the parents that we want to kill but can’t live without, are accepted and kept, and internalized? As I thought about the beasts in this movie, I was struck by the amazing amount of meaning and energy we carry around in us, unrecognized or acknowledged, in our unconscious selves. I included another quote that I read in a review of the film. It reflects the elusive nature of the unconscious processes that can sometimes be recognized but not described or even verbalized. “But its impact, its glory, is sensory rather than cerebral. Let me try out an analogy. Discovering this movie is like stumbling into a bar and encountering a band you’ve never heard of playing a kind of music that you can’t quite identify. Nor can you figure out how the musicians learned to play the way they do, with such fire and mastery.”
A.O. Scott NYTimes movie critic about Beasts of the Southern Wild.