Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild: More Thoughts on Hushpuppy’s Interpretation of the Universe

beasts of the southern wild

I recently reread my post on Hushpuppy’s interpretation of the universe in Beasts of the Southern Wild. As I mention in that post, most of the ideas it contains are from a 10k word research paper I wrote in college; while I still think those ideas are valid, the post does feel incomplete due to all the cutting and reworking that the original paper underwent to create it.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to share some more of the thoughts from that paper. Doing so should both help to fill in some of the gaps in my previous post and will shed light on just how well crafted Beasts of the Southern Wild is as well as on some of the ways in which Zeitlin’s film creates and conveys meaning.

And so, here is my reading of a number of scenes from the film that illuminate Hushpuppy’s method of understanding the macrocosm, the film’s way of imbuing images with importance much larger than the mere objects they contain, and the theory of the universe that the film contains. 

The Very First Shot and the Very Last Words
There are no inconsequential elements in the conception of the universe that Hushpuppy develops throughout the film, and, with it’s opening shot, Beasts gives its viewers a sense of why. According to the film’s first image, Hushpuppy’s world is one in which larger structures are both built from and supported by smaller pieces, in which structures of any size are subject to the comparatively larger forces that surround them, and in which all the structures, parts, and pieces are, in some way, connected.

The film’s first image is of Hushpuppy’s trailer. The people of The Bathtub live in homes pieced-together out of what others beyond the levee would call junk—Hushpuppy and her trailer are no exception. Things others might see as worthless or as too small to be of any value have use and are vital in The Bathtub. Notably, there are no attempts to disguise the pieced-together nature of The Bathtub’s structures.

Beasts begins by showing Hushpuppy’s trailer from a distance and from a moderately low angle, which draws attention to the thematically important fact that the trailer is not a freestanding structure. The film’s initial presentation of the trailer makes it clear that it stands several yards off the ground and is supported by a vine-covered column that could be composed out of just about anything. Regardless of what makes up the column, the dwelling would come crashing down without it. So would the little girl inside. A few seconds after the trailer first takes its place on screen, a light switches on beyond one of the windows. As the viewer soon learns, in the room from which the light emanates, sits Hushpuppy. Even when hidden from view—not unlike the column beneath the vines—Hushpuppy is a part of the trailer. She is also as dependent as the rest of the trailer on whatever is keeping it aloft. As Hushpuppy herself later realizes, many of a structure’s most important parts are not always visible.

Furthermore, just as the structure depends on smaller parts to remain standing, so too is it subject to more macrocosmic forces like the weather and, of course, so is Hushpuppy. From the very beginning of the film, it is clear that there is a storm brewing; against a dark sky at dusk, Hushpuppy’s trailer sways precariously in threatening winds.

Along with the complex relationship between microcosmic parts and between microcosm and macrocosm comes a sense of interconnectedness; in Beasts‘s opening shots, the trailer is partially obscured by trees, and as it sways in wind, the trees sway with it. Throughout the film, it is often unclear where nature ends and where the man-made begins. In his film, one of Zeitlin’s first orders of business it to present an image of Hushpuppy’s home as a place where everything is part of a single universe and where everything is either part of or built out of that which surrounds it. 

Thus, Zeitlin’s film provides objective support for many of the claims about how universe operates and where she fits into it that Hushpuppy makes later in the film. The opening shot suggests that Hushpuppy’s subsequent voiceover declarations are not merely products of a scared and naïve child’s imagination; rather, they are conclusions founded in her reality as a Bathtub-resident. Before the viewer ever meets Hushpuppy Beasts declares that, in her world, small affects large, large affects small, the part has influence over the whole, and the whole has influence over the part.

In fact, by the end of Beasts, Hushpuppy concludes that she, like The Bathtub and like her trailer, is a composite structure. In her final voice over, Hushpuppy gives voice to her own version of the all-encompassing interdependence and pervasiveness of potential influence indicated by the film’s opening shot (in doing so, she also makes a declaration that helps her to cope with her father’s death). As the film is ending, she says the following: When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. But when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they gonna find it all. They gonna know—once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.

Hushpuppy speaks the words above as viewers see her saying goodbye to her father forever. There is no crying allowed at Bathtub funerals and here at her father’s funeral, Hushpuppy comes up with a reason why. When she takes the time to look closely and when her mind is “quiet” enough for her to focus, Hushpuppy sees that she is made of various “pieces” just like the universe she is a part of. She has been shaped by various people, places, and experiences, and she has been made by things that are now and forever will be a part of her. She carries her “invisible pieces” wither her wherever she goes. Her father Wink had a hand in creating her; even though he is dead, he is not gone so long as she lives on. Faced with the tragedy of her father’s death, Hushpuppy takes the situation, along with what she knows of the world, and turns it into a something she can believe and that will allow her to carry on undiminished.

When she decides that she is a composed of separate “pieces,” she also recognizes herself as a “little piece” of something much larger than herself. Hushpuppy is made of pieces, and Hushpuppy is, in turn, a piece of the “big, big universe.” If everything is somehow part of everything, and if something’s “invisible pieces” are always there “flying around” it, then everything is important to something, and nothing ever really goes away; such is just what an orphaned six-year old whose home is destroyed by a flood and whose father dies despite her efforts to “fix” him needs to believe to survive.

Hushpuppy Wants to Understand
Hushpuppy’s first voiceover tells viewers that she is a child who pays attention to the small things and who sees the world as a puzzle to be solved. The first words of the film are as follows: “All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beatin’ and squirtin’ and talkin’ to each other in the ways I can’t understand. Most of the time, they probably be saying, ‘I’m hungry. I gotta poop,’ but sometimes they be talking in codes.

Before she begins speaking in voiceover, Hushpuppy holds a small duckling up to her ear so she can hear its heartbeat and puts her hand on a pig’s chest so she can feel its. As the viewer listens to the lines above, Hushpuppy finds and chases down a little chick, picks it up, and listens to it intently. Hushpuppy listens to the hearts of the animals around her—to that small, but supremely vital part of them. She listens, she sees, she touches, and she tries to learn. The words above reveal that Hushpuppy sees the world as a place teeming with life, and all of that life is connected. Hushpuppy believes that a piece of everything is in constant communication with the life that surrounds it. That she does not yet understand the messages herself does nothing to change the fact that they are being said.

As Beasts continues, Hushpuppy continues to pick up small animals to listen to their even smaller hearts; she keeps trying to learn the “codes.” Hushpuppy believes that there is meaning to be found in the world around her and even in some of its smallest constituents. Hushpuppy knows that there are things in the world she does not understand, but maybe she can come to do so in time if she tries; she tries by living and by using what she knows to interpret what she can.

Small but Mighty 
One day after class, Hushpuppy returns home to find her father missing. Wink’s disappearance leaves Hushpuppy to fend for herself. After failing to find Wink in his trailer, Hushpuppy searches for him outside, repeatedly calling out to him as she does so. With each subsequent cry of “Daddy,” her typically confident voice grows increasingly desperate and fearful. Hushpuppy knows that her place in the universe is precarious without her father (the lesson Bathsheba gives before this scene reinforces this). She is a part of her father, she is connected to him, and without him, she is in danger.

Luckily for Hushpuppy, Wink returns within a day or so. Beasts uses the episode that follows Beasts to explore the relationship of the part to the whole and to give the viewer further indication of how Hushpuppy understands that relationship herself.

Hushpuppy spots Wink walking up to his trailer from her window and runs to him. Hushpuppy asks Wink why he is wearing a hospital gown, but he becomes irritated and orders her to leave him alone. Emotionally hurt, Hushpuppy returns to her trailer and turns one of her stove’s burners to full blast. Whether she expects or intends to start a fire is unclear, but that is what happens, As flames grow in her trailer’s kitchen, Hushpuppy hides under a cardboard box in the living room. Wink, bursts into the trailer and begins looking for her frantically, calling out to her as he does so.

Just a moment before, Beasts showed Hushpuppy searching desperately for and crying out to him; but now, the tables are turned. Small pieces and large pieces, parts and wholes—the same fear and insecurity can plague them all.

Before either the fire or her father reach her, Hushpuppy runs out of the trailer and is pursued by Wink. As her house burns down in the background, Hushpuppy runs through the trees and overgrown grass outside. Small as she is, Hushpuppy’s actions destroy the same structure that was shown protecting her from the threatening winds of the film’s opening scene.

Gaining on his daughter, Wink shouts, “Get your ass back here!” Still running, Hushpuppy yells back, “I’m tearing off! I’m tearing off just like my mama!” Hushpuppy may just mean that she intends to run away; still, her choice of words is unusual; “tearing off” indicates abrupt and physical separation. After seeing her father’s fear as he looked for her in the burning trailer, Hushpuppy now seems to have some sense of the potential power of a part to damage some larger whole to which it belongs. By adding, “just like my mama,” Hushpuppy not only rubs salt in Wink’s wounds, she demonstrates awareness that loss of her mother has been painful, damaging even, for her single father. Though she may not comprehend how much she herself means to Wink, Hushpuppy uses the possibility of her separation from him and from The Bathtub as a threat against him. Bathsheba’s warning that “the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled” still fresh in her young mind, Hushpuppy offers to speed up the progress by removing herself from the only family and the only home she has ever known; microcosmic though she is, such words indicate that she is beginning to understand herself as a part of the macrocosm.

Wink’s reaction to Hushpuppys threat is also important. He is clearly shaken by his daughter’s  words; there is something in her, “I’m tearing off!” that he takes seriously. When Wink catches up with Hushpuppy, he grabs her by her arm and barks, “Come here! See what happen! See what happen to you!” With his shouted commands, Wink may mean something like, “Come here, so I can punish you for setting fire to your house and running from me”; however, he may mean (additionally or instead), “Come here, so I can see if anything has happened to you.” Just seconds earlier, Wink was not even sure that Hushpuppy was alive, and the possibility that she—a physically small, but critically important part of himself—is hurt terrifies him. Wink has a violent temper, but cares deeply for his daughter. There is nothing to make a person feel small, insignificant, and helpless quite like fear; by putting herself in danger, Hushpuppy exercises a sort of power over her much larger father, even if she does not realize it. 

Despite her father’s sincere concern for her wellbeing, Hushpuppy replies to his commands with an intensely defiant, “No!” Wink slaps her across the face and regrets it immediately. The blow turns Hushpuppy away from Wink and sends her to the ground. Hushpuppy makes Wink feel small by endangering her life, and he makes her feel small by knocking her down. After taking a second to process what he has done, Wink complains to Hushpuppy, “I gotta worry about you all the damn time! You killing me! You killing me!” Wink may not be speaking literally, but something is killing him (he suffers from an undisclosed illness), and worrying about how his daughter will survive if he—the center of her universe—dies may actually be making his condition worse.

Wink’s “You killing me!” also suggests that Hushpuppy herself could be what’s destroying him. Perhaps Wink is afflicted by a broken heart, perhaps he has been severely damaged by the loss of the piece of him that was Hushpuppy’s mother. As a reminder of her mother’s absence, Hushpuppy may exacerbate his suffering. That one as small as Hushpuppy could so intensely affect a grown man like Wink—whose larger size is emphasized throughout the scene by a series of low-angle shots—underscores the power of small things subsumed by a theory of the universe defined by interdependence and interconnectedness. In Beasts, little does not mean powerless or inconsequential. Hushpuppy may be the one lying on the ground, but her father’s words and the fact that she moves him to act in a way he regrets demonstrates her influence over him. 

As the episode continues, Hushpuppy finds herself confronted both by her father’s hidden weakness and her own unrealized strength.

Hushpuppy gets up and then, with all the bitterness she can muster, says to Wink, “I hope you die. And after you die, I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself.” Wink’s death is the last thing Hushpuppy wants, but she, like her father, allows her temper to get the best of her—he is, after all one of the things that “made” her. Also like her father, Hushpuppy completes her outburst with an act of violence. Perhaps in an attempt to reassert her status as “Bosslady,” Hushpuppy punctuates her utterance by punching her father in the chest. Her face contorted by anger and intense concentration, Hushpuppy strikes her father with all the force  she can muster. Despite the animosity of her words, Hushpuppy does not expect to hurt her father the way she does. She is puny. Wink is, in her eyes especially, big and strong. But, to the surprise of both Hushpuppy and Wink, the blow brings the latter crashing down.

At first, Wink stands motionless, and, for a moment, it seems that he has absorbed the blow without consequence, but then a close up on Wink’s face makes it apparent that such is not the case. During the close up, even the shaky and erratic camera work stabilizes, allowing the viewer to see Wink’s shocked and silent countenance more clearly than the rest of the scene, thereby establishing the gravity of the moment. Mouth agape, Wink slowly moves his gaze from his chest down to his daughter; the act reinforces the connection between Wink and Hushpuppy, and between Hushpuppy and the harm the blow causes her father. Within seconds, Wink collapses, and begins twitching in pain and gasping for breath on the ground. When Wink knocks Hushpuppy down, she gets up without difficulty. When Hushpuppy knocks Wink down, it nearly kills him. Hushpuppy is part of Wink, she is connected to him, and her capacity to hurt him is much greater than she realized.

That Hushpuppy hits her father in the heart is also important (she is after all a child who listens to the hearts of animals) In Beasts, Hushpuppy’s first voiceover establishes (in addition to a general interconnectedness between creatures) that to be and to be alive is to have a heart that beats. Hushpuppy strikes Wink in what she understands as the core of his being. Furthermore, that Wink’s Achilles heel is in his chest strengthens the possibility that his affliction is emotional as well as physical. This, in turn, strengthens the possibilities that Hushpuppy’s “I’m tearing off!” causes him real fear and that the absence of Hushpuppy’s mother has severely damaged him. One of Wink’s most important pieces has left him, another just threatened to do so and then drove her fist into his heart.

By emphasizing the significance of hearts as it does, Zeitlin’s film also underscores the critical significance of “even the smallest piece” to the functioning and well-being of some larger whole—a significance that Hushpuppy will soon articulate. Compared to the rest of the body, the heart is unimpressive is terms of size, but it is still part of the body, and it, like Hushpuppy, can bring a grown man crashing down. 

Hushpuppy does not take pride in her newfound ability to harm her father (he is part of her after all). As Wink falls, thunder roars ominously. Her eyes wide and fearful, Hushpuppy repeatedly looks from her father on the ground up to the sky. The movement of Hushpuppy’s gaze establishes a conceptual connection between the storm brewing above and her father barely clinging to life below.  Hushpuppy believes that by injuring her father she has also brought the thunder and the storm it portends.

As Hushpuppy stands panicking and paralyzed by fear, Bathsheba’s earlier lesson about aurochs and the unraveling of the universe comes back to her. Twice, when Hushpuppy looks up to the sky as she cowers beneath the menacing thunder, the film cuts from Hushpuppy in the bayou to the glaciers of Antarctica and an image closely resembling Miss Bathsheba’s poster of the South Pole fills the screen. The sound of thunder merges with that of huge boulders of ice crashing into the sea and quickening the arrival of the flood destined to overwhelm The Bathtub. In Bathsheba’s lesson, melting ice caps and rising waters are a sign that the universe is coming apart at the seams. In Hushpuppy’s mind, her small fist slamming into her father’s heart has triggered the cataclysm that The Bathtub—her entire world—will be destroyed by. Here (and throughout the film), Hushpuppy interprets her individual action as an event of cosmic importance and of universal consequence.

Hushpuppy makes sense of what she experiences in the scene described above in her usual manner; in voiceover, she declares: The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.” As she say these words, a series of images plays on screen—squirming bugs on a leaf in The Bathtub, chunks of ice breaking off and tumbling down Antarctic cliffs, an aurochs encapsulated in ice, storm clouds. Bathtub life, melting ice, threatening beasts, and the flood about to fill The Bathtub all combine in Hushpuppy’s imagination. Hushpuppy believes that, by hitting her father, she has broken something in him, and that, by doing so, she has also triggered the end of her world.

If the structural integrity of “the entire universe,” can be undermined by a flaw in just one of its “smallest piece[s],” then learning to survive means learning to make sure that all one’s pieces are intact and to not damage any pieces that one has influence over. If every piece of the universe is of potentially vital importance, then every piece has great responsibility not to bring disaster to all the others. If every piece of the universe is of potentially vital importance, then “the entire universe [could] get busted,” at any moment. “Just right” is not easy to achieve or to maintain.  Hushpuppy believes that she has “busted” Wink—a part of her world and “piece” of “the entire universe”— and though it is not actually Hushpuppy’s fault, disaster does strike The Bathtub when the entire community is flooded by a massive storm.

Rather than becoming convinced that what is “busted” is now beyond repair, Hushpuppy comes up with a new maxim—one that fits within her current understanding of the universe and her place in it while also affording her some degree of hope in her present situation.

After the storm devastates The Bathtub, its remaining residents band together and form a sort of commune. As Bathsheba doctors a sick girl with all the children watching, she says to them, “This is the most important thing I can ever teach y’all: you got to take care of people that’s smaller and sweeter than you are.” To Hushpuppy, Bathsheba’s words and the general resilience of her community in the face of great tragedy cause her to reconsider her beliefs that “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right” and that “If one piece busts, . . . the entire universe will get busted.” Hushpuppy does not abandon the beliefs (she is someone who understands her perception as truth), but does add to them.

In a later voice over, the little girl at the heart of Beasts declares, “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.” Hushpuppy is not responsible for taking care of the entire universe, she is responsible for taking care of those parts she is capable of taking care of. In a conception of the universe founded on dependence and connection, every piece of that universe is important to the others in some way. In Hushpuppy’s Bathtub, everyone (no matter how small) has to do what it takes to survive, and has a responsibility to those around them.  

Until Next Time
This post will probably make the most sense when read in conjunction with my previous one (I probably should have published them together as one properly integrated mega post oops). If it isn’t clear already, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that I love deeply, and I would love to discuss it with any of you. If you have thoughts about this post or about the film in general, feel free to leave a comment below or to follow this blog on twitter.

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