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Beasts of the Southern Wild: Tragic beauty of island lives doomed by the rising water

Behn Zeitlin’s film dramatises the struggle against climate change, writes Sarah Ensor

Issue No. 2326

Hushpuppy and Wink’s recycled boat keeps them close to the water

Hushpuppy and Wink’s recycled boat keeps them close to the water

On an island in the wetlands of Louisiana, the locals are preparing for the next great storm. They are black, white and Native American and—according to six year old Hushpuppy—they have more holidays than anywhere else in the world.

These are riotous carnivals of drinking and running around with fireworks, and this is where Hushpuppy begins her story.

What follows is a beautiful film that celebrates a unique and precarious world—and the strength of the people who live there.

Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink in their houses in the trees, feeding their animals and listening to their heartbeats.

They fish and on their way home they gaze at the levy, the city and the oil works it protects. Wink cannot understand why people would live on the ugly side when the island is so beautiful.

Almost everything they have is recycled. Wink’s boat used to be a truck, and as long as there are fish to sell there is fuel. What matters to them is their closeness to the water and to their neighbours.


Hushpuppy and Wink’s freedom is unlikely to be understood by those who cannot see past the poverty and squalor they live in. But to describe them as poor misses the point. Theirs is a way of life that has survived nearly 200 years of capitalism, but will not survive climate change.

Hushpuppy understands her world is fragile. Her mum has gone but her dad insists she must be strong and fend for herself.

She doesn’t yet know about coastal erosion, or the salt poisoning their land, nor how sick her dad is. She imagines the threats to her world are prehistoric monsters gradually emerging and coming to get her.

There are elements of “magical realist” style in the film, but they are unobtrusive and express well the fears of the film’s protagonists. Many of the actors are untrained, including Quvenzhané Wallis who puts in a superb performance as Hushpuppy.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has something of the feel of Rabbit-Proof Fence, the 2002 film about Australian aboriginal children stolen from their families.

The state sees Hushpuppy and her friends as a problem it must solve for “their own good”. They are at the mercy of rising waters, and their island home is ultimately doomed. But their heroic struggle is a tribute to the human yearning for freedom—right up to the bitter end.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Behn Zeitlin, is in cinemas across Britain now. Go to

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Tue 23 Oct 2012, 17:13 BST
Issue No. 2326
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