Beasts of the Southern Wild

A movie about climate change wins the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance

8-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis plays the character Hushpuppy     Photo: Jess Pinkham

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a climate change doomsday tale like no other climate-change doomsday tale—think Where the Wild Things Are meets The Road with an environmental twist. The terrifically unpredictable film evokes a visceral concern for what lies in wait when ecological disaster strikes. It then asks how one is supposed to come to grips with the notion of impending catastrophe. The answer is: celebrate the hell out of what you have right now.

The movie centers on an impoverished but wildly spirited community in a fictional Louisiana bayou called The Bathtub. Early on, a schoolteacher ominously instructs her kids that climate change is transforming the ecology of their community. “Y’all better learn how to survive now,” she warns. To ratchet up the looming threat, scenes of life in the bayou are interspersed with surreal cutaways to a pack of pre-historic aurochs that, once frozen in glaciers, have now been loosed from the melt. Throughout the film, the ferocious beasts stampede closer to the bayou, a metaphor for approaching disaster.

When the storm finally hits, it floods The Bathtub’s ramshackle homes, transforming lowlands into murky rivers and wiping out the animals and plants once relied on for food. Rather than despair, the Bathtub’s steely citizens drink and laugh and feast on the grub that remains. The two main characters—6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her mercurial father, Wink (Dwight Henry)—will not be fazed. They troll the water for catfish, which they hunt by hand. Wink tries to drain the bayou by blowing a hole in the levee. “I got it under control,” he roars. Well, he doesn’t, exactly—he’s actually dying—but that doesn’t make his attitude moot.

In press notes for the film, director Benh Zeitlin writes, “With the hurricanes, the oil spills, the land decaying out from under our feet, there’s a sense of inevitability that one day it’s all going to get wiped off the map. I wanted to make a movie exploring how we should respond to such a death sentence.” If you haven’t already gathered, this is not a pragmatic exploration of ways to avert said death sentence—for those answers, try a documentary. Instead, Beasts offers a much more esoteric take on climate change, and it’s well worth a watch when it comes to a theater near you.

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