Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray.
Four things on earth are small, yet they are exceedingly wise: the ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in the summer; the badgers are a people without power, yet they make their homes in the rocks; the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank; the lizard* can be grasped in the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces.
In first-time director Benh Zeitlin’s film the six-year old tomboy answering to the name of Hushpuppy is also small, and also “exceedingly wise.” The “wild” of the film’s title is a Louisiana bayou known as “The Bathtub,” where Hushpuppy lives with Wink, her hard-drinking father who says, “My only purpose in life is to teach her how to make it.” As we will see, there is more behind that comment than we first realize. The “beasts” of the title are from the folklore of the people, aurochs, giant boar-like beasts with long tusks protruding from the top of their heads.
Hushpuppy narrates the film, sharing some of her wisdom along the way, such as “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.” And, “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.” We are not told how she lost her mother—her father evasively says that she “swam away” —so she is well aware of loss: “Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.” Hushpuppy lives in her own trailer on stilts not far from her father’s. Wink gets up each morning, kills and fries one of the chickens that wander freely around the yard, and then rings a bell to call his daughter to breakfast. We wonder about this separation, a separation that seems far too harshly enforced when Hushpuppy has to move in with him after a fire consumes her home. Wink divides his living quarters using duct tape for a line, sternly telling her that she must stay over on her side. We begin to understand this bizarre behavior after he returns from several days of unexplained absence. His daughter asks him why he is wearing a dress: she has never seen a hospital patient’s tie-behind gown. Wink later finally has to tell his daughter that he has an incurable disease, and his goal is to make her capable of surviving in the bayou. In one scene we see him teaching her how to stay still with her hand in the water, ready to grab one of the catfish swimming by. She ends up hurting her hand on the fish, not a good harbringer of things to come.
The magic realism of the film combines the folk beliefs of the locals (a belief in previously mentioned aurochs) with modern science. At school her teacher Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana) bluntly says that, like all creatures, everyone is meat in the chain of life. As she informs them that global warming is leading to the melting of the polar ice caps, we see huge masses of ice collapsing, and emerging from them are shadowy creatures. “Any day now,” she says, “the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled.” As the film progresses the camera cuts away to the aurochs numerous times. They are heading south, meaning toward The Bathtub. Also heading their way is a major hurricane, so maybe these are one and the same.
The denizens of The Bathtub at first seemed to me to live in terrible squalor—Wink’s house is littered with unwashed dishes and empty tin cans—and yet all of the characters are presented as persons of dignity. They celebrate together with music and dancing, and on the 4th of July with sparklers. There seems to be no trace of the color barrier that so mars the outside world, and they join together, white and black, to pool their resources after the devastation of the hurricane. The sumptuous meal of seafood that they share would cost hundreds of dollars in a Manhattan upscale restaurant! Later they resist the well-meaning rescuers who try to transplant them to a shelter, and some of them band together to dynamite a levee in an ill-fated attempt to cleanse their now polluted bayou.
The film climaxes with a magic realism journey of Hushpuppy to find her mother. Angered by her father and his illness, Hushpuppy runs away and is given a ride out into the gulf by a friendly sea captain to the Elysian Fields Floating Catfish Shack “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS,” Hushpuppy wanders through a world illuminated by colorful lights and filled with people dancing to music. For a brief period one of the “GIRLS, GIRLS” offers her something of the mothering she has been craving, a mother’s tender embrace.
The end of the film is a satisfying one in which we are assured that Hushpuppy will indeed survive. She shares a last supper with him, and Wink’s earlier exclamation to her “You the Man!” is wondrously fulfilled in the encounter in which she comes face to face with the huge aurochs. In a magical moment his other statement is fulfilled, “You the king!” What a delightful, if pint-sized, heroine Benh Zeitlin has given us to place alongside Merida of this year’s Brave and last year’s Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. This is a film you will long remember
There are spoilers below.
1. How long did it take for you to realize that we cannot take everything we see or hear in the film literally? How does the device of having a six year-old tell the story go well with magic realism? Compare this film to others such as Moonrise Kingdom or Pan’s Labyrinth.
2. How did you feel at first about the squalor of the people’s living conditions (has Wink ever washed a dish?)? How much of the bayou life is idealized, and how much is grounded in reality? Does race seem to be a problem to any of the characters, white or black?
3. Were you puzzled at first by Wink’s keeping their living quarters strictly segregated? What did his disappearance and reappearance suggest to you—especially his hospital gown?
4. How would you describe Wink as a father? Not the idealized one of “Father’s Knows Best,” perhaps, and yet what does he live for? How well equipped do you think he leave his daughter at the end?
5. What do you think of the fellowship among the people of the Bathtub? They are poor materially, but what about the things that really matter?
6. How does their teacher also contribute to Hushpuppy’s development?
7. What are Wink and his friends trying to accomplish by blowing up the levee? How does he learn that some forces of nature are more than he can handle (remember what he did during the hurricane)? As they eat up most of their remaining food, who is it that reminds them thatThe Bathtub is probably finished in its ability to sustain them?
8. Why do the people resist the attempts of the government to bring them to a safe shelter? What does Hushpuppy say about this? How does this incident provide a new perspective on well-meaning attempts to help “the less fortunate” ? How is this episode a good example of culture clash, neither side understanding the other?
8. Why does Wink try to give Hushpuppy away? How does this force her to face reality, and yet, at the same time, what does she do? What does she seek, and what does she find at the floating strip club?
9. What is transpiring in the confrontation with the aurochs? What do you think of the symbolism of the giant beast kneel
ing down to her?
10. What is happening in the last scene in which Hushpuppy and the children are walking down the wave-swept causeway? What do you think the future holds for them? How are they, and Hushpuppy in particular, equipped to survive whatever befalls them?