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Beasts of the Southern Wild

When a kid’s story has a message that everyone should listen to very carefully

By Alberto Sclaverano

Among the strangest and less conventional movies ever made about climate change, a special place needs to be reserved for Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), which he co-wrote alongside Lucy Alibar adapting her stage play Juicy and Delicious. The film is difficult to categorize under traditional genre rules. It is a drama, but also a fantasy story (at least for certain aspects) and it has a strong allegorical and symbolic dimension inside it. Made ten years ago, it could have come out yesterday. The style is so unique, and the thematic so important, that it seems to transcend time. Shot and photographed in a gritty, almost amateur way, the film tries to be as realistic as possible while telling a story that sometimes seems almost like a dream.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father live in a remote part of Louisiana, on a small island in a swamp-like area where the risk of flooding is always imminent. It seems like a post-apocalyptic scenario, but it is, in fact, the real description of the post-Hurricane Katrina landscape in some parts of Southern United States. The story is mostly told from the point of view of young Hushpuppy, who loves the place in which she has grown, even if it appears ugly and very hard to live in for “normal people”.

From the beginning, there is a clear opposition between the inhabitants of the "Bathtub", the name the island is referred to in the film, and the people who live in the external world. While the persons who reside in the "Bathtub" seem to aim for a pacific coexistence between humans and the Earth, the others outside seek to dominate nature with technological power and industrialization. But that is precisely the cause of the environmental deterioration, which led to the massive floods that sometimes strike the “Bathtub”.

Hushpuppy, her father, and her neighbours seem to evoke a possible alternative to the consumeristic, capitalistic order that reigns on everything in the rest of the country. The film is not political in a traditional sense, and it should not be read as a manifesto for degrowth. It is instead a cry of despair for the human folly and the damage we are inflicting on the planet. Beasts of the Southern Wild is also a beautiful and sometimes poetic meditation on the relationship between us and nature. Climate change is not explicitly mentioned, but it is a central theme. It is clear that, due to the climate crisis, the “Bathtub” risks disappearing in the water soon.

In the local community school, Hushpuppy learns from the teacher, Miss Bathsheba, that in prehistoric times humans were hunted by monstrous creatures, the aurochs, and that one day they could return. They came back in fact and reached the young protagonists at the end of the film.

In reality, the aurochs are simply the wild, massive ancestors of modern domestic cattle. During the film, some of them awoke after being frozen in the Polar Ice Cap for centuries, as a consequence of the ice melting. They become a recurring, menacing presence in the film. But it is not clear what these extinct animals want to symbolize. Their return is clearly caused by climate change, and they can be a metaphor for the oncoming climate catastrophe. But they can be related also to Hushpuppy's personal story and the complex relationship with her father, who is ill and bound to die soon.

In the end, she met the aurochs but succeed in calming them and saving her friends. Does it mean that she has matured and can take her father’s role and lead the community to a better future? Is it an allegory of the reconciliation between us and nature, which is possible only if we renounce the consumer society as the characters of the movie have done? This is only one among many of the fascinating, unresolved mysteries that Beasts of the Southern Wild present to us. Just like her little protagonist, the viewers will probably sometimes find themselves lost in the world created by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar. But it is clear that this story has a very important meaning. It is up to us to decipher it. And doing it can be a beautiful, moving experience.


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