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Fairytales of Liminality in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Written by Marta Wąsik.

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"Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub."

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) is the story of five-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in two ramshackle trailers in a southern Louisiana town called the Bathtub. The community is threatened as a hurricane ravages the area, causing the majority of the inhabitants to flee to safety. But not Hushpuppy and Wink; they stay in the Bathtub, floating on their do-it-yourself raft, catching fish with their bare hands and looking for others who, like them, refuse to abandon their town. Together, the people of the Bathtub try to resume their lives, but the salty water brought in by the storm makes it impossible, causing all living things to wither and die. The only way to save the town is to blow up the levee which separates the Bathtub from the world. The plan is successful but the aftermath is dramatic. The area is mandatorily evacuated and the people are transported to an emergency shelter. Moreover, the chaos caused by the storm is not Hushpuppy's only concern: her father is also dying. Despite his best efforts to keep his condition hidden, Hushpuppy slowly realises and has to face up to his inevitable death. "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted," she intones.

Beasts is not simply a film about the hurricane. Neither is it solely about a little girl learning to deal with the death of a parent, nor a story about eco-warriors living as one with cruel nature. While it is in part all these things, at the heart of the film lies something far more mesmerising and puzzling, something that refuses to equate Beasts with any one thing, or to solve it neatly and completely. In this article I have no intention of interpreting the film in the regular sense. Rather, I want to offer a framework of interpretation (one of many) that has been central to my visceral response to the film.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film about boundaries; about their arbitrariness, fluctuation and, eventually, their necessity. There is a border between here and there. It keeps here safe, and there safely removed. The border enforces stability and pretends to maintain it. That's what borders are for. They make sure there does not spill over into here. They defend here from contamination, by the Other, the unknown, and the rejected. Here is the space of the self, there is the space of the abject. There is the space where all that threatens to upset the perilous stability of the I is exiled. There is no here without a there, but equally, there would not exist without a here. However, the Bathtub is a not a place beyond the boundary - "the abject, or the Other" - rather it is the very boundary itself. This is what makes it approachable: it is familiar enough to draw us in but strange enough to keep us from claiming that we can know it. This also refuses a condescending approach that - in a film about ‘poor subaltern folk whose lives are ruined by the hurricane’ - would be an all-to-easy perspective to present. Beasts is not a film about pity but about strength, as Hushpuppy's voiceover communicates: "Everybody loses the thing that made them. It's even how it's supposed to be in nature. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run."

Being on the here/there boundary, the Bathtub is a liminal space where everything comes together, clashes, coalesces and mingles. Beasts unfolds in a constant movement that amounts to a process of becoming. Spectators are made to participate from the outset via the whirlwind-like experience provided by the hand-held camerawork. Evidencing none of the dreary realism usually associated with the technique, the cinematography is vivid, bold and colourful, much like the Bathtub's inhabitants themselves. Living in their scrap houses, they reclaim that which others have considered worthless; they make the most of it. Hushpuppy tells us, "The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world." Time in the Bathtub is not separated between leisure and work, celebration and restraint, but is an ongoing Mardi Gras. Carnivalesque, Beasts upsets the rigid separation between the sacred and the profane. It does not simply turn it upside down, or inside-out; it blurs the boundary between the two, rendering the separation useless. Above all, it demolishes the distinction between human and beast. This philosophy of the organic is not the blissful return to the naïve and beautiful state of nature and the child, but brutal, Darwinian, eat-or-be-eaten stuff. The familiar separation between human and animal relies on a refusal of the physical foundations of our existence: the icky matter which makes us what we are; the stuff of life; the meat. But, this recognition does not bring with it the disavowal of 'higher' impulses. Rather, it implies that they belong to the same order as the flesh. It is not a case of either/or, high or low, nature or culture, the body or the mind (or soul). Each creature is as special as it is mundane. At the beginning, Hushpuppy listens to the animals' hearts and tries to understand them, believing they have a story to tell. At the end, she listens to her father's fading heartbeat, acknowledging that he is at once the animal and the man. That's why she does what she is forbidden to do: she cries. But then, she goes on. Because that is the way things are: "I see that I'm a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right."

Beasts of the Southern Wild can be read as a (post-)apocalyptic fairly tale and a coming of age story in which Hushpuppy is the narrator of her own account. It is her imagination that permeates the film's depiction of the Bathtub, situating it on the borderland. Drawing on the genre of magical realism (and supported by the floating quality of the cinematography and the delicate tinkling of the folksy, music-box-like soundtrack) the film effortlessly blends the extraordinary world of the girl’s fantasy with the everyday world that surrounds her. It never offers a strict demarcation between real and imagined. In line with the larger fluidity between boundaries, terms and states that Beasts proposes, the fantastic is always an essential element of the ordinary, so much so that it is impossible to distinguish between them. In Hushpuppy's imagination (and thus in the spectator's perception), her fears concerning her father's impending death and the world beyond the levee assume the shape of the Aurochs: fierce, ancient, bull-like creatures released from the melting icebergs. To overcome them, the child needs to leave both the familiar comfort of the Bathtub community and the enforced consolation of the emergency shelter and venture into the space beyond to face the absent-presence of her interior landscape: her mother.

Associated with food and sexuality, this woman, who is only featured briefly in the film, is primarily depicted as a trace: a shadow; a voice; a t-shirt hanging from a chair. But, as with the case of the Aurochs - who originated from a story propelled by the Lascaux-caves-style tattoo of the on Miss Bathsheba's (Gina Montana) thigh - the mother also seeps into reality. In a gesture so Freudian it would be silly were it not delivered with such grace and conviction, the girl travels (or escapes) to the middle of nowhere, where, on a floating brothel, she finds her Hushpuppy Momma, "a woman so hot she could light a stove just by walking past it." The woman offers her shelter, but the girl recognises she must leave it behind. Embracing and letting go of both mother and father (and also, perhaps, her imagination), Hushpuppy steps out of childhood. She relinquishes fear and faces the Aurochs, who recognise her strength and bow to her. She is the man; she is the king of the Bathtub.

There is triumph in Beasts' final moments, but it is laced with sadness. The magical atmosphere that permeates the Bathtub can only last for a while. This closure refers not only to the duration of the film, but also to the world depicted within it. That is the other aspect of liminality: it is transient. Hushpuppy cannot remain on the threshold forever: she must grow up and she must move on. She must become, and becoming requires the relinquishing of the in-betweens that characterises the process itself. If we think of Hushpuppy's journey as a 'quest' story (one of the archetypical narratives formalist Vladimir Propp identified in his study of fairytales), this circularity becomes inevitable. As in a traditional fairytale, Hushpuppy's odyssey follows a familiar trajectory: the hero sets out, beats the odds, and returns home, transfigured, ready to assume his or her place in society. Hushpuppy needs to be integrated and, refusing to inhabit here, she will inevitably fall into there, vanishing from our sight. The film leaves us with a question: what will remain of her story, aside from what she has drawn on the cardboard box that burned when she set fire to her trailer?

"Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub."

This article was published on February 23, 2013.