This post contains spoilers.
Beasts of the Southern Wild remains a staggeringly beautiful movie on second viewing; I recently watched it again, outside of the thin air at Sundance, and was equally as moved as I was in January. The film, which will never be accused of subtlety or having a soft touch, works solidly on an emotional level. This viewing I found myself also caught up in the deeper meanings of the piece, finding resonance in lines and scenes I had missed the first time around.
Foremost on my mind was the question of the film’s politics. Critics have railed at the movie for being everything from liberal white poverty porn to thinly-veiled libertarian/GOP propaganda - extraordinarily opposing viewpoints, to say the least. That spread of reactions points to the real truth: the film is essentially politically neutral. This isn’t a social policy movie, and while there are certainly echoes of Katrina to be found everywhere, director Benh Zeitlin isn’t trying to make a point about FEMA or judge George W. Bush’s reaction time to the disaster.
And I don’t think Zeitlin is judging the people of the Bathtub either. The film remains morally neutral, allowing us to see the awful aspects of Wink, Hushpuppy’s drunken father, as well as the good. He’s a bad dad and he’s a great dad, all at once. He’s abusive, but he loves her and teaches her true, deep strength. The Bathtub is an amazing place and a ridiculous place, all at once. The people there are living lives of admirable freedom, but they’re also booze-addled dingbats. To some the lack of judgment is disturbing, or comes across like an implicit support of the bad behavior on display. But the reality is that the movie is embracing the schizophrenic duality of life, the fact that something can be ugly and beautiful at the exact same moment. Every piece - no matter how small or how unpleasant - is needed to keep the universe in working order.
What interests Zeitlin is what happens when the universe falls out of working order. The film’s main theme - and there are a number of themes floating around, almost haphazardly - is change and loss. Change comes to the Bathtub, which is destroyed by the storm but also strengthened, and change comes to Hushpuppy, who loses her father but gains a sense of herself. What I found interesting in the film’s themes of change is that Beasts is very specifically interested in how change impacts those who live in the moment, people who don’t truly plan ahead.
In some ways Beasts of the Southern Wild is a retelling of the story of the ant and the grasshopper, except through the grasshopper’s eyes - and it turns out he doesn’t want a damn thing from the ant. For all of the parsing of who the people of the Bathtub are supposed to be, the most obvious answer is simply: us. Americans living in the 21st century paying no attention to the ice caps as they melt. We know the disaster is coming, but we ignore it. The people of the Bathtub know they’re living on borrowed time even before news of the storm gets to them, but they simply go on having parades and holidays. It’s what makes them wonderful, and also what makes them stupid. It’s a particularly American brand of blindered optimism, and Zeitlin views it filtered through the ultimate of-the-moment party culture, New Orleans.
When you live for today how do you deal with it when tomorrow comes? That’s what the people of the Bathtub have to figure out in the aftermath of the storm. Even as the waters recede the salty flood has killed off everything - the land, the animals, even the hope. But in the final scenes we see them standing together, tighter than ever.
Throughout the film the rampaging aurochs reflect Hushpuppy’s impending battle with her own duality, which is partially literalized in the way Wink blurs gender lines with her, telling Hushpuppy she’s the man and that one day she’ll be the King of the Bathtub. He wanted a boy, maybe, or he’s afraid that a girl can’t handle the difficulties that lay ahead. He wants her to be a beast - but he doesn’t understand that the beast can be any gender. And he doesn’t understand that the beast can live in peace with the human. Wink has given over his whole life to the beast. “You’re my friend, kind of,” Hushpuppy tells the auroch at the end as it bows before her.
She controls the beast at the same moment that she ascends into something like womanhood. She has gone on a quest to find her mother, and what she found instead was the female strength inside of her - in the form of alligator meat. It’s the food her mother made for Wink on the day Hushpuppy was conceived, and it’s the food she feeds Wink just before he dies. Not only is Hushpuppy making a connection with her missing mom, and thus her own female side, she’s helping her father deal with the change that has haunted him for years.
You can’t fix what’s broken in the universe because there’s nothing broken. The nature of it all is change, and the bad and sad changes are just as vital as the happy ones. And sometimes the bad changes - like the aurochs being freed from their metaphorical ice prison - end up being not so bad at all. So the final shot of Beasts of the Southern Wild is Hushpuppy and the people of the Bathtub marching forward, out of the water, changed, and stronger for it.