The idea of the apocalypse is so big, and so overwhelming that it’s hard to look at directly, even in art. We can have heroes who avert the end of the world, or who even if they can’t stop the devastation, survive to carry on humanity’s legacy, as in 2012 or Deep Impact. And we can have mad anti-heroes like the ones in Southland Tales, who see what the other people around them can’t, who make us feel smart and sympathetic for being perceptive enough to believe in them. But both of those scenarios don’t really get at the full horror of the apocalypse: in the former, the only people we’re invested in survive; in the latter, we get to walk away pleased with ourselves if sorry for the recently and cinematically departed. One of the many things that makes Beasts of the Southern Wild, the joyous and insanely original movie that was the best thing I saw at Sundance, so remarkable is that the main character, the 6-year-old girl through whose eyes we see the world and who we want badly to survive, may also be the person who’s brought about the end of all things.
Her name is Hushpuppy, and she lives with her father Wink in a region called the Bathtub, which we’re meant to understand lies outside the levees in Louisiana. Hushpuppy’s mother, a figure of legend who was so beautiful she caused water to boil when she walked into the room and gave miraculous birth to Hushpuppy after shooting a gator, is long-since vanished. Life in the Bathtub is wildly celebratory, even in the midst of what most viewers would probably define as extreme poverty (and which they may find disturbing when it’s recast as magical realism: there is nothing transcendent about poor children eating cat food, as Hushpuppy does in one sequence, though it’s made clear that moment is a low). There are no marble countertops or Wolf stoves in the Bathtub. But Hushpuppy is absolutely convinced that she’s not deprived. “Daddy says on the other side of the levee, on the dry side, they afraid of the water like a bunch of babies,” she tells us in her introduction not just to her neighborhood, but the code she and her neighbors live by. “The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world…Daddy’s always saying that up in the dry world, they ain’t got none of what we got. They only have holidays once a year. They got fish stuck in wrappers and babies stuck in carriages…Me and my daddy, we stay right here…We’s who the earth is for.”
All of which makes it more disturbing when Hushpuppy comes to believe that she’s thrown the world violently off its axis. After a series of incidents involving a blowtorch, a football helmet, and Wink’s short-term disappearance, Hushpuppy, in a moment of acting her age, strikes her father. Even in her terror at the thought of being punished or abandoned by Wink, Hushpuppy is philosophical: “If Daddy kill me, I won’t be forgotten,” she insists. “I’m recording my story for the doctors and the scientists. In a million years, kids in school will know that there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the bathtub.” So it makes sense that her reaction to hitting Wink happens on the same scale: when he falls, icebergs shear off the poles, long-frozen aurochs begin to float towards land and defrost, and a storm — presumably Katrina — soaks the Bathtub, leaving behind a landscape that’s drowned, and seemingly dying of a mysterious ailment. “Mama, I think I broke something,” Hushpuppy tells her missing parent.
What follows is both a rollicking adventure to the levees, the post-Katrina refugee centers, and back to the Bathtub — and a profound moral reflection on Hushpuppy’s responsibility for the calamity that’s fallen her community and her family in the form of Wink’s illness. Beasts of the Southern Wild may not explicitly be a movie about global warming, but there’s no mistaking the movie’s profound respect for interconnectedness, whether Wink’s teaching Hushpuppy to survive in the Bathtub without him, and perhaps without any community at all, or Hushpuppy’s reflecting “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.”
The movie also has a deep skepticism of government-run recovery efforts, which attempt to medicalize Wink and civilize Hushpuppy, rejecting them as another symptom of drylanders being out of sync with the states that are natural to them. That’s a somewhat radical proposition in a world where much of the debate has been whether the government response to Katrina was sufficient, not whether it was attuned to deep ecology. But there’s an extent to which that reaction is in keeping with the movie’s radical perspective on our relationship to the dreadful events we’re complicit in creating. We — and Hushpuppy — need time to face up to the terrors we’ve unleashed, and what we have to give up in order to banish them.
When she runs away from the Bathtub after her escape from civilization’s clutches, Hushpuppy tells us, “Everybody loses the thing that made them. That’s even how it’s supposed to be in nature. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.” She ultimately faces up to her responsibilities. It remains to be seen if we can do the same.