Directed by Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild won the Camera d'Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, among other awards. It is a remarkable culture captured by a young filmmaker on a remarkable budget.This sometimes grainy, sometimes sepia tinged film about the people who live in the area of the Mississippi delta called “the Bathtub” is difficult to watch, but I could not look away. To see five year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, youngest ever nominated for Best Actress) be so neglected is heart breaking. We see crumbling glaciers as Miss Bathsheba teaches about the melting ice caps, much as we see Hushpuppy’s world crumbling. The glaciers unleash imaginary, giant boars called Aurochs into Hushpuppy’s world, and she stands them down. This, I suppose, is to indicate to the audience that she can triumph over the real life adversities that face her: the abandonment by her mother at a much younger age, the illness (cirrhosis?) that is ravaging her father Wink (Dwight Henry), and the ongoing neglect and intermittent continued abandonment that her father inadvertently repeats. That she survives the hunger and filth of her makeshift home, much less survives Hurricane Katrina, is unimaginable to this middle class, white woman who put baby proof hinges on all the kitchen and bathroom cabinets.
No matter how inadequate the caregiver, a child attaches to the one on whom it is dependent for survival. If a caregiver is reliably responsive with care and comfort, the child feels a safe haven from which to explore the world, and can turn back to that caregiver when hurt, frightened, or lonesome. When a child turns to a caregiver who is rejecting or dismissive, the child learns to avoid turning to the caregiver, and instead, learns to soothe itself by focusing on some more reliable thing, such as Hushpuppy found in the red sports jersey her biological mother purportedly wore.
Hushpuppy may have been able to befriend the Aurochs, but I imagine that the demons inside herself, not the least of which might be a belief that she drove away her mother and that she killed her father, will be much harder to face. Children like Hushpuppy need not only food and shelter and safety from the storm that rages outside, but require also sufficiently skilled mental health services if they are to stand down the wild beasts within.