There is no doubt in my mind that Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is an accomplished film. The film is shot like a documentary, but the cinematography by Ben Richardson—a blend of grainy 16mm film stock, shifting focus, and handheld camera—turns it into a poetic fantasy by successfully capturing the subjectivity of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl whose life in a Louisiana bayou community is upended by a terrible storm.
Hushpuppy’s attention is always curious and roaming; it registers the beauties of life: small particles of dust rising in the morning sun, the heartbeat of a small bird, and the taste of fried alligator–before quickly moving on to other concerns. Beasts of the Southern Wild belongs to the visual and philosophical realm of Terrence Malick, making the mundane vibrate with the preciousness of life via the innocence of youth. Beasts of the Southern Wild is an accomplished film in every respect except for its screenplay (written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar).
The film has been getting a lot of ink spilled over it due to the ideological implications of its story (one of the best, albeit tangential, engagements with the issue comes from Noel Murray at The AV Club). Once the storm hits the bayou community of “The Bathtub,” the water levels rise and we’re put into an environment that cues up our memories of Hurricane Katrina. The critical difference between the two events? The government is not inept; it wants to help the residents of the Bathtub and red tape and mismanagement is not holding them back. In fact, the government (represented by aid workers and well-intentioned doctors) want to help the folks so badly that the Bathtubians take the offers of support as affronts to their personal liberties. These Libertarians would rather die or suffer on their own terms than be offered medical care and shelter.
The screenplay for Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t falter because it is political or because it embraces politics that some will undoubtedly disagree with. The screenplay falters because it neglects to provide a context for this Libertarian streak, mutating what might be a character motivation into a plot contrivance. The engine of the film’s narrative is that Hushpuppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry), has been diagnosed with an unspecified medical condition. Rather than seek treatment, he embraces his fate, surrounds himself with friends, and decides to slowly die in his corrugated house while teaching his daughter how to survive in an unkind world. When the government’s doctors intervene by diagnosing and beginning to treat his illness (which, we glean, is risky but not absolutely fatal), he rejects them. He spits out his medication, grabs Hushpuppy, and flees the facility. Because of Wink’s actions and the lack of context for the relationship between the government and the Bathtub (we’re told they have philosophical differences in how they approach life but any kind of history of deceit and betrayal is never established), we are forced to question his motives. Is he really sick beyond treatment? Or is he stubborn to the point of absolute stupidity? We know that he loves Hushpuppy in a very flawed and human way; why would he throw in the towel like that just because treatment involves an IV and a breathing tube?
This is a gap of knowledge that could have been addressed in two obvious ways. First, regardless of the film’s restriction to Hushpuppy’s point-of-view, characters tell stories amongst themselves throughout the film. In that respect, the foundation for distrust of the government could have been established, even in the vaguest of terms. Second, since Wink wants to teach Hushpuppy how to survive in the face of life’s pains, why not have him explain the situation in concrete terms rather than yelling, “You wouldn’t understand!”? If she wouldn’t understand why her father is dying, why would he expect her to understand the importance of survival instincts? He certainly is not the model of self-preservation that she needs. Ultimately, the film is a beautiful and poetic frustration. The characters do not make psychologically motivated decisions so much as they are taken by the hand and put into narrative position.