In our myths and legends, heroes are of course not always the ones who emerge victorious. Often they are those who fight on in the face of inevitable defeat.
Beasts of the Southern Wild has been gushed-over plenty but its portrayal of a small community living in a flood-prone southern Louisiana region called the Bathtub has also sparked backlash. Critics accuse it of romanticizing poverty and making heroes of a group of self-reliant outsiders with little subtlety or critical reflection: “‘noble savage’ nonsense all over again, but with crawdads and zydeco,” as Dana Stevens put it in Slate.
The film’s prologue doesn’t do much to deflect these charges. Hushpuppy, the remarkable 6-year-old girl at the heart of the film, says it explicitly in her voiceover: Bravery and righteousness lie firmly on the side of the Bathtub residents, who are free and independent, unlike the helpless babies on the other side of the levee, who are slaves to a “one holiday per year” life. The plot that follows gives the film’s opening arguments an added political edge: the poor community resists the pampered establishment attempting to force them off their land.
Fearless fortitude as an antidote would be naive if it wasn’t balanced by the bitter truth. Wink insists he’s “got things under control.” In fact, Wink has very little under control.
Director Benh Zeitlin clearly wants Hushpuppy’s story to inspire us. But the film’s view is also dark; it is in no way limited to the joys of life in the Bathtub or the bravery of its residents. The community is heroic and sympathetic, but quite obviously doomed. The film’s fanciful portrayal of the downtrodden group is packaged alongside a down-to-earth realism about the Bathtub’s—if not our world’s—ongoing march to destruction.
The first thing we’re told after the exuberant first scene is that the ice caps are melting, the water is rising, and the bathtub is going to flood. No one’s running for their life at the news, though, and the residents aren’t exactly staying with looks of fear in their eyes. They live through the storm like they lived through others: heavy drinking for some, shoddy adjustments to already makeshift homes for others.
And it’s a hell of a storm. The metal walls rattle, the whole structure that Hushpuppy and her father Wink call home shakes. Wink yells at the heavens daring them to bout with him, and the utter roar of the downpour makes for one of the more exhilarating moments in the film. The only time that the ground shakes as much is when the aurochs—the boar-like mythical creatures that have come out of deep-freeze for the first time since the ice age_rumble across the land.
The brute power on display in these scenes is important, because while Beasts tells of a strong community living in less than ideal circumstances, it also underlines how natural forces – once disturbed by humans—can only be abated, not defeated. In addition to the storm, resulting flood, and the auruchs, Zeitlin repeatedly cuts to shots of melting ice masses crashing into the arctic ocean—a reminder of both the enormity and pressing danger of the changes to our environment. Yes, these natural foes are slowed or tamed throughout the film: Hushpuppy stares the stampeding aurochs down to submission, the Bathtub community begins rebuilding after the storm, and the levees, before Wink’s intervention, do stop the waters from reaching the other side. But we and the Bathtub residents know that those last two victories, at least, aren’t permanent: the characters continue to watch their land die, and we know all too well that levees eventually break.
In Beasts, there’s no permanent way of living with nature, and the film is no lesson in how to control it. It’s a warning that, at this point, we’re bound to be overrun.
In this respect, Beasts is less like The Tree of Life—the epic, heady 2011 film that it’s sometimes compared to—and more like the other prominent apocalyptic movie from that same year: Melancholia. Lars Von Trier’s film takes a decidedly more pessimistic character as its lens for the end of days—a depressive who turns nihilistically serene at the news of pending apocalypse. But it and Beasts have a similar takeaway: stop whimpering and trembling in the corner. In Melancholia, that means facing down the oncoming destruction of the earth with calm reconciliation; in Beasts, it’s the opposite: sticking your chest out with a warrior’s resolve and living as if maybe the currents can be reversed.
Fearless fortitude as an antidote would be naive if it wasn’t balanced by the bitter truth. Wink insists he’s “got things under control.” In fact, Wink has very little under control. While his community tries to beat back the storm, he is busy beating back an illness that’s slowly but certainly eating away at him. He tries his best to prepare Hushpuppy for life without him, and she learns to stand on her own just in time to defend her community, just like he wanted. But how long before she realizes, like Wink, the limits of her control?
The story’s somewhat uplifting end exemplifies the film’s conflicting drives: heavy doses of fatalism throughout rub up against an emphatic belief in the characters’ unabated spirits; melancholy mixes with joyous flourishes. As we’re introduced to more of the people who populate the Bathtub and its surroundings—in the ramshackle community and on the floating catfish shack that Hushpuppy travels to—the rugged determination in their faces never fades but weariness also emerges. In Beasts, the ship is going down singing, and that singing is dazzling and resilient. But let’s not forget the main clause: the ship is going down.
The Bathtub community does not develop a way of life to be imitated. Beasts does not hide that the characters make an irrational, unsustainable choice by refusing to leave their land. But Hushpuppy and her neighbors are portrayed as heroes because they keep on fighting. That heroism comes filtered through rose-colored glasses, but also accompanied by an acute sense of impending doom.