What "Beasts of the Southern Wild" Really Says...or Asks

Since the release of Benh Zeitlin's heady survival film Beasts of the Southern Wild, countless commentators have been trying to untangle the underlying "message" of the film. Is it a glorification or condemnation of poverty? Is it about environmentalism? Is it taking a political stance on local communities in conflict with government authority?

After having a few days to digest the film and reading an illuminating interview with the director, I came to the conclusion that Beasts is an important film - but not for the socio-economic, environmental, or political debates it touches on.

Part of the reason Beasts has confused audiences is because it presents a world conditioned by the imagination of a six-year old called Hushpuppy. Familiar imagery of storms, parties, and illness are paired up with fantastical and mythological elements - most noticeably massive boar-like animals called "aurochs." Because reality is filtered through the subjectivity of Hushpuppy, it feels at once familiar and alien, logical and bewildering. The aurochs and other wild images, presented as just another component of the tapestry of existence, will without a doubt leave many viewers scratching their heads.

Even though this filter is sometimes confusing and even inscrutable, we're able to see the central drama of the story clear enough: The Bathtub - an impoverished but generally happy community filled with fishing and drinking -  is cut off from the larger community and in danger of being flooded. Meanwhile, Hushpuppy's father - a boisterous drinker who sees his job as staying in The Bathtub and keeping his daughter alive - is dying. His illness is worsened by a powerful blow Hushpuppy delivers to his ticker after he slaps her and yells at her.

As the film unfolds, Hushpuppy feels an escalated sense of personal responsibility, as well as cosmic significance, in the midst of these trials, and it's in her voice-overs that we really see the true meaning of the film unfold.

Here are some of her more contemplative meditations:

"The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece...the whole universe will get busted."

"Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run."

"In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub."

"When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces."

And my favorite: "We's what the earth is for."

This last quote comes right before the end of the captivating first few scenes, which reveal the celebratory spirit of life in The Bathtub, complete with song, food, and fireworks. 

These lines show what Beasts is fundamentally about - not poverty or politics (though it does touch on these things), but universal "big" questions about mortality, purpose, and ultimate reality.

In a revealing interview with the director Benh Zeitlin, he does talk briefly about the social and political dimensions of the film. Zeitlin explains that the film tries to show The Bathtub as a kind of "utopia," a place defined by "ultimate freedom" and "joy" that you'd want to "fight and die for." (To be fair, you could also point to the many instances of physical, psychological, and spiritual turmoil experienced by Hushpuppy, and make a case for The Bathtub being an equally destructive and problematic place. The Bathtub - though blessed with a certain simplicity and sense of community - is far from a utopia, even on the film's own terms.)

As for politics, Zeitlin concedes this much: "I guess it is a political statement. People should not be forced to leave their homes. The whole movie is about why you can't be pulled out of your home."

However, as we read through the interview, it becomes clear that Zeitlin had deeper motivations for making the film that transcend political or economic questions - universal human questions that coincide with religious quests for truth. 

When asked about the folkloric and mythological feel of Beasts, Zeitlin responds: "That's the thing about a folk tale: It is always addressing incredibly key issues about how you should live and what the right thing to do is, which is really what I'm the most interested in - like the questions that religion takes on. And I think that, for those of us that aren't religious, we need, or I need, art that stimulates the same kind of thinking about what it is to be a mensch, or a good man, things like that."

Zeitlin is talking here about one of the fundamental philosophical questions: "How should I live?" Throughout the film, Hushpuppy ruminates on this question, and in the process extols the virtues of bravery, fortitude, loyalty, and love of and family and community.

There is also an emphasis in Hushpuppy's voice-overs on the search for truth - a journey which is sometimes necessarily filled with, or accompanied by, great danger. This, too, was part of Zeitlin's vision for the film:

"There's a fearlessness in the culture [in Louisiana] that has everything to do with how close to death it is...What is it about living close to death that benefits your soul as a person? It reminds me of like being at a crazy concert or something, like in a mosh pit...You can't timidly find this ecstatic truth; you have to really push yourself to get there...It's like a religious experience."

My favorite writer Walker Percy would probably have a few things to say about this quote as it relates to the film. While science teaches us that animals feel good in good environments and bad in bad environments, Percy often noted that man - oddball creature that he is - tends to feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments. Why is it that, in the middle of a hurricane or natural disaster or in its yellowy aftermath, people seem oddly giddy, animated, talkative, alive? Conversely, why is it that when a person has all of his or her social, physical, and emotional needs met - he or she is strangely dissatisfied?

But Zeitlin wants to go beyond questions about how to live, or what living is like - both important questions. He confronts the great question of our mortality and what lies beyond the appearance of things, and again, compares the search to a religious quest:

"I want my art to discuss big questions," he says. "For some reason elite society doesn't want to think about that stuff a lot of the time. It's like my frustration with science, which is, OK, you're answering the most mundane questions about biology and nature and you're doing nothing for me as far as how to understand death, or... Religion deals with these big questions, and it gives you an answer, and makes people feel all right about dying...Big films do too, but with usually pretty silly answers like, 'be a man' or, 'don't give up.' They give these really stock answers. And then indie film just doesn't address them at all half the time, which is very frustrating to me."

Zeitlin is right to lambaste the indie film world in this respect. Many indie directors glorify themselves as intrepid journeyers into the profound questions that big films won't wrestle with; but oftentimes, the reverse is the case: the big budget films are the ones addressing the most important questions in life, and the indie films are just "much ado about nothing."

And Percy would've again seconded Zeitlin's critique of "elite society," especially the scientific community. Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, Percy often talked about the very simple truth that science can tell us about everything under the sun, except what it means to live and die as a human being, i.e., the most important thing we need to know. 

Why am I here? How should I live? Who is the earth for? What happens when I die? These are some of the big questions - territory of great interest to seekers everywhere - that are at the heart of Beasts of the Southern Wild


  1. Thank you for this interesting and insightful background piece about a beautiful film. As I look back on the experience of viewing the film, this piece has fed my imagination and enriched my understanding.