Beasts of the Southern Wild, A Twenty-First Century Elegy

As both a poet and a screenwriter/playwright, I’m fascinated by hybrid art, by the overlap of language between mediums, in particular, scripts crafted poetically. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a memorable one, narrated with the wonder of a six-year-old girl in dialogue she delivers in verse, spoken word enhanced with visuals:

                        One day, the storm’s gonna blow,

                        the ground’s gonna sink, and the

                        water’s gonna rise up so high,

                        there ain’t gonna be no Bathtub,

                        just a whole bunch of water…

                        But me and my Daddy, we stay right

                        here. We who the earth is for (Alibar and Zeitlin, 7-8).

The reverberations of extended funeral metaphor juxtaposed with a raw will to live through a voice of innocent wonder permeate the film. Released in 2012 with leads Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, based on Alibar’s stage play Juicy and Delicious, is one of the most evocative scripts I’ve ever engaged with. With deep layers of metaphor and wisdom, the feel of the screenplay is magic realist, even though it’s set in a violent time, a near-future post apocalyptic sliver of the world. The mythic Isle de Charles Doucet, the Bathtub, where main characters six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father Wink live, is based on the real Louisiana Isle de Jean Charles off the coast of New Orleans, where ineptness and lack of regard for the consequences of underfunding and budget cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with greed-driven fossil fuel dependency, precipitate the deaths of the most vulnerable in worsening climate change-related storms like Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005.    

Beasts of the Southern Wild witnesses a section of humanity left to fend for itself in the chaos of rising sea levels from melting ice caps. Death and survival entwine in its visuals and narration through a blend of exceptional acting with eloquent writing. Being encouraged to kill crabs for meat, Hushpuppy knows that everything dies, yet she sculpts a life of purpose and order through small actions. She listens carefully to animals and objects, both poetic and scientific at once, earnestly mapping her world, patiently deciphering its codes.

Even very early in the script when Hushpuppy can’t find her terminally ill father as a storm encroaches, her innocent child’s perspective is rich with foreshadowed truth:

Hushpuppy, quaking with fear, runs through a menacing swamp clutching her

medicine jar. The rising winds swirl the marsh grass all around her.

Hushpuppy runs to the spot where Wink collapsed.

He’s gone…

                                                            HUSHPUPPY (V.O.)

                                    Daddy could have turned into a

                                    tree, or a bug. There wasn’t any way

                                    to know (19).

The depth of the narration sets the tone of the circular nature of life and death, of determination and powerlessness. Death rituals are part of existence. “For the ones we’d never find, we make a funeral the Bathtub way, with no crying allowed,” (35) Hushpuppy says further into the story.

Henry Holland Scott’s well known funeral poem, On Dying, that he gave as part of a sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1910, is alluded to in a communal tribute:


                                    A ship at my side starts her motors

                                    and sails for the gulf. I watch her

                                    until she disappears. “There! She’s gone!”

                                    Gone where? Gone from my eyes, that’s

                                    all. She’s just as big as when she left me.

                                    And somewhere else, other voices are

                                    calling out, “Here she comes!” And that

                                    is dying.

            They raise their drinks to the sky and shout in unison.

                                                            EVERYONE (CONT’D)

                                    HERE! SHE! COMES!

            Hushpuppy gazes into the sparks leaping off the top of the fire…particles

            jumping into the sky. HORNS ENTER, droning low, and building into

            a funeral dirge (75).

Hushpuppy may not know terms like ethics and integrity, but she lives them, carves out her own resilient wisdom of belonging with her child’s sense of wonder, garnering value even in the fallen, even if no one sees, because deep down she knows that every action resonates in the universe.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is an extended metaphor for the paradox of the human will to live, belong and be immortalized in the memory of the cosmos while causing our own impending doom from having ignored scientific evidence in the name of greed and convenience. From the juxtaposition of shots of melting polar ice caps (18) with daily activities in The Bathtub to a local kid running down the road shouting “The storm’s coming,” (20) Beasts of the Southern Wild is an urgent wake-up call. As the voice of a young girl leads the way to the faint hope of a new paradigm, the film a metaphor for the ominous state of the Earth and injustice in the climate crisis, both a funeral and a call to action, we are left on a bridge between elegy and beginning. An excellent read as a script and a cutting edge film to view, Beasts of the Southern Wild is worth checking out for both the dramatist and poet in you.

Cynthia Sharp holds an MFA in creative writing and an Honours BA in English literature and is a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, as well as The Writers’ Union of Canada. She was the WIN Vancouver 2022 Poet Laureate, one of the judges for the 2020 Pandora's Collective International Poetry Contest and the City of Richmond, British Columbia’s, 2019 Writer in Residence. Her poetry, reviews and creative nonfiction have been published and broadcast internationally in journals such as CV2, Prism, Haiku Journal, The Pitkin Review and untethered, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology. Her work is featured regularly in classrooms in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. Cynthia is the author of Ordinary LightRainforest in Russet and The Light Bearers in the Sand Dollar Graviton, as well as the editor of Poetic Portions, a collection of Canadian poems and recipes honouring Earth Day, all available in bookstores and libraries throughout the world. She resides on Coast Salish land, inspired by the beauty of west coast nature.

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