They call it the Bathtub—a low, waterlogged land that almost seems like it broke free of Louisiana and floats on its own. It’s populated by alligators and crawdads and a poor-but-generous people. It has no currency to speak of, no system of government. It imports nothing but liquor and fireworks, exports nothing but laughter and dreams. It’s a savage but carefree place—a Darwinian Eden where each day is a struggle to survive, each night a holiday.
“Daddy always says that up on the Dryworld, they got none of what we got,” says Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old resident of the Bathtub. She believes her daddy and loves her life—what with its lazy days and firecracker-filled nights.
But all is not perfect in the Bathtub. Hushpuppy’s mother is long gone—”swam away,” Daddy says—and Hushpuppy’s forced to communicate with her through an old basketball jersey. There’s something wrong with Daddy, too. He’s coughing a lot, and he shakes in the night. Not too long ago he vanished for days … coming back in a funny white dress that ties in the back and a plastic bracelet.
Then there are the Aurochs—fearsome beasts that were once kings of the world. They don’t live in the Bathtub, not anymore. But if things start breaking, they could come back.
And something does break. A furious Hushpuppy punches Daddy in the chest, and he falls down, shaking, gasping. The clouds boil through the skies, signaling a massive storm. Somewhere up north, the ice begins to melt and the Aurochs stir.
Hushpuppy wonders whether she’s broken something in Daddy, something in the world itself. The universe, she tells us, depends on everything fitting just right, and she believes she’s thrown off its equilibrium. “Sometimes,” she says, “you can break something so bad that it can’t be put back together.”
Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, have a pretty odd father-daughter relationship—so much so that an organization such as Focus on the Family might well hold them up as examples of how a family should not behave. Hushpuppy (who’s 6, you’ll remember) lives in her own “house”—a trailer on stilts that she burns down. Wink, in many ways, is indeed a terrible father, and we’ll have opportunity to catalog some of his bad behavior later.
But Wink loves his child, however imperfectly. He instills his own set of values into her: strength, self-reliance, attitude, all of which are critical to surviving and thriving in the Bathtub. When a horrible hurricane blows in, he protects her as best as he can. And most tenderly, he wants to protect the girl from watching him die.
[Spoiler Warning] In the end, she won’t leave him, though. She comes back and stays with him until he passes. “Everybody loses the thing that made them,” she says. “The bravest stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.”
Throughout Beasts of the Southern Wild, we see how the residents of the Bathtub pull together and take care of one another. They become, in a way, a family—dysfunctional perhaps, but a devoted family nevertheless. “You gotta learn to take care of people sweeter and smaller than you are,” someone tells Hushpuppy.
The people of the Bathtub don’t seem particularly religious. Even funerals appear to be devoid of any real spiritual context, other than a suggestion that the deceased is heading toward some sort of afterlife. But there is a childlike thread of magic, if you will, that runs through the film—the sort of magic that all children feel when they find a beautiful stone and carry it with them always, or the idea that a certain stuffed animal or an oft-repeated phrase might keep the bogeyman at bay.
Thus, Hushpuppy talks with her mother by way of that sports jersey, and her mother talks back. She believes in, and later sees, the fearsome Aurochs.
Hushpuppy’s daddy has told her that her mother was so beautiful she didn’t have to light the stove: It would ignite when she walked by. He also tells her (and we see a part of) the story of her conception: As an alligator creeps up on a sleeping Wink, a topless woman comes into view toting a shotgun. (We see her from behind.) The shotgun goes off, and we see blood spatter across the woman’s legs. Wink was impressed, he says, and “Hushpuppy popped into the universe about four minutes later.”
Hushpuppy, in an effort to speak to her mother, winds up in what appears to be a brothel. The women there, wearing flimsy, low-cut nightgowns, dance with the men. And they coo and fawn over Hushpuppy and the other children who follow her in—almost like affectionate aunts.
Hushpuppy’s teacher is named Miss Bathsheeba; she wears low-cut tops.
Wink is an angry, sometimes brutal man. When Hushpuppy talks back to him, he slaps her across her face, causing her to fall down. Undeterred, Hushpuppy gets up and punches him, sending Wink sprawling—not because of the force of the punch, but because something about it set off his sickness. He lies in a state of dwindling consciousness until Hushpuppy worries that she might’ve killed him. But later he’s up and about, apparently OK.
Wink roughly handles Hushpuppy on other occasions, too, and one time threatens (not seriously) that he’ll punch her in the face. Together they catch catfish with their bare hands, and Wink shows her how to bash a gasping fish on the head with her fist to kill it. She tries, but hurts her hand a little. We see the dead bodies of fish, fowl and beast. When the storm comes, a drunk Wink takes a shotgun and fires it into the clouds, swearing and shouting at the hurricane. Wink and other Bathtub residents plant explosives in an alligator carcass and blow up part of a levy.
[Spoiler Warning] The people of the Bathtub forcibly resist evacuation when government officials come to take them away. Then, when they’re all cooped up in a temporary shelter, they riot, eventually breaking free so they can head back home. Wink struggles against medical personnel when they try to make him take drugs. He thrashes against his doctor when the man tries to tell him how serious his condition is.
The Aurochs thunder toward the Bathtub, crashing through buildings. We see them savagely eat one of their own, who has died on the journey.
At least one f-word and three s-words. We also hear “a‑‑,” “h‑‑‑,” “t-tty” and “p‑‑‑y.” (Some of these profanities are uttered by 6-year-old Hushpuppy.) God’s name is paired with “d‑‑n” three times; Jesus’ name is abused once.
Wink and other Bathtub residents drink heavily. We see them imbibe beer and mixed drinks throughout the day and night—and the Bathtub’s bar serves as the community’s only real gathering spot. No surprise, then, that when the hurricane blows through and most of the Bathtub is flooded, residents shack up there for weeks. We see the owners falling-down drunk.
When Wink wants to have a heart-to-heart with his daughter, he pours himself a shot of liquor, then pours another out for Hushpuppy, encouraging her to drink. The 6-year-old reluctantly does, making a face.
Wink leaves Hushpuppy alone for a few days—long enough that Hushpuppy wonders whether she’ll have to start eating her pets. She doesn’t. But she is forced to eat cat food, cooking it on a dangerous gas stove she lights with a blowtorch. Hushpuppy battles her father’s inattention by lashing out at him through backtalk and other, more extreme methods—including setting her house on fire.
Hushpuppy talks about animals pooping and brags she can “burp like a man.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a work of fantastical realism: The Bathtub isn’t a real place, according to director Benh Zeitlin, but it feels like it could be—a region near New Orleans outside the levy walls. Zeitlin says the time, too, is uncertain, though others suggest the events here take place around the time of Hurricane Katrina.
The story is seen through the eyes of a child—a 6-year-old girl who still thinks the world is full of magic and power. And even though she’s just a tiny speck in this big, broad scary world, she feels as though she has her own unique power—the power to change things, to make them better. She helps us think of the Bathtub not as a stretch of land outside New Orleans, but as a magical kingdom, full of portent and fable.
The result is both inspiring and troubling.
It’s a beautifully told story, filled with haunting images and a strong, gutsy young protagonist. Hushpuppy’s courage and character are things to behold, and she both anchors and elevates this bayou fable—one that emphasizes the dignity, compassion and humanity found in a world most of us can scarcely comprehend. Yes, the people are poor and their lives are hard. But they’ve fully embraced something many of us with hot running water and Internet access sometimes struggle with: contentment. They live in the moment in a way most of us can’t. And there’s something beautiful, even biblical about that.
But while they’d not trade their lives for any other, should they? Beasts tells us that how we live and how we raise our children is a matter of choice. That perhaps there is no right or wrong way to do so. The Bible and, frankly, loads of experts tell us otherwise, though.
Every day may be a holiday in the Bathtub, filled with friends and fun and strong drink. But drinking all the time is problematic for a whole host of reasons—and few people outside the Bathtub would approve of serving liquor to a 6-year-old, no matter how well-meaning the parent is. There may be a certain appeal to grilling up a scrawny chicken for breakfast and dinner, or living simply in a shack. But there’s something to be said, too, for working hard and saving and trying to give your children an education, or other advantages that might not have much currency in the Bathtub.
I get why Wink and his pals love the Bathtub. I appreciate the courage they show in braving the hurricane in the face of overwhelming obstacles. But just because you’re willing to risk life and limb to cling to your small plot of land—land that flooded before and will flood again and will never be habitable for terribly long—does that mean it’s really fair, or wise, to foist that fate on your offspring?
This story is filled with bravery and determination and community. But I see very little wisdom here—which is also an admirable trait. Without wisdom, all those other traits amount to a man in a storm, shouting and shooting into the clouds.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.