Set in the fictional Louisiana bayou nicknamed “The Bathtub”, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a harrowing tale of the life and love of a young girl named Hushpuppy, played by Oscar-nominated adolescent Quvenzhane Wallis. Eloquently directed by newcomer Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild uses the striking mise-en-scène of the Louisiana backwoods to tell a heartfelt story of poverty that strikes many communities located along the Gulf Coast.
For example, the opening scene gives the viewer an unadulterated look at the desperate situation Hushpuppy and her father Wink (played by newcomer Dwight Henry) are in: her hair is uncombed and untidy, her clothes are dirty, and she wears galoshes year-round.
Hushpuppy and her father live in separate houses, which are actually dilapidated mobile homes that sit precariously on top of stilts. The Bathtub is not the most serene environment for a 5-year-old to grow up in, but Zeitlin carefully balances the destitution with his characters’ spirit of determination.
The residents of The Bathtub call themselves “Beasts” because they are able to survive insurmountable odds and continue to live in a town where, at any moment, they could be washed away.
Wink is slowly dying and Hushpuppy continues to survive on her own by taking care of “The Farm”: a hodgepodge of displaced animals that the pair raise for sustenance. The key focus of Quvenzhane Wallis’ performance is to show the survivalist mentality that she, and the other residents of The Bathtub, exude.
These residents are completely cut off from the world by levees, so Zeitlin and his director of photography, Ben Richardson, intentionally used the cinema verite-style of shooting to give a gritty, claustrophobic look at the lives of Hushpuppy and her father.
For instance, in order to show the severity of thunderstorms in the Louisiana bayou, Zeitlin decided to frame each shot in the “comfort” of Wink’s home, which happens to be the worst possible shelter for any human being.
Clever tracking shots of holes in the ceiling, water rising from the floor, and even close-ups of Wink forcing his daughter to fall asleep in a makeshift boat, allow for the viewer to truly understand how desperate the situation really is.
The stark contrast between the fantasy elements of Hushpuppy’s journey, and the gritty realism of her father’s reality, gave Zeitlin much flexibility in the mise-en-scene for each character.
A perfect example is one of the opening scenes when Hushpuppy and her father are attending a festival on the main street of The Bathtub. From Wink’s perspective, everything is desolate, trashed, washed up, and disposable. The colors around the bathtub are grimy grays, browns, and diluted oranges. The streets are filled with happy and colorful people, but Wink understands that this is not the best place for a single father to raise a daughter.
But from Hushpuppy’s perspective, Richardson shot mostly at night, when the carnival evolved into a fireworks show, with flashing lights encompassing each frame. Hushpuppy’s naïvety towards her world is communicated through her eyes, which reflect the levity of the fireworks display at the carnival.
The mise-en-scene is almost washed out by bright greens, oranges, reds, and gold. The fire illuminating from the ends of the fireworks held by the residents of The Bathtub reflect the fire inside Hushpuppy, which ends up being her only crutch during the inevitable devastation that will ensue.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is an entertaining example of how a story can be told effectively through characters, mise-en-scene, and careful cinematography. Zeitlin knew exactly what the controlling issue of the film was: does freedom come at a cost? Is it worth being yourself if your world is clouded by struggle?
By juggling the perspectives of the experienced Wink with his inexperienced daughter, the audience is able to understand what these people stand for, and why The Bathtub is more than just a failing city.
“There can be light in the shrouds of darkness. There can be life in death.”