In the far southern tip of Louisiana, within the poverty stricken bayou country, there’s a myth about wild beasts called aurochs that have been long extinct—they eat their mothers and fathers alive. “We are all beasts,” a local woman tells a group of young children, including a spirited, six-year-old named Hushpuppy, stripping the pant from her leg so that they can see the caveman like drawings of the fabled beasts tattooed on her thigh. “We are all made of meat,” she goes on to feed the children’s imaginations, particularly Hushpuppy’s, whose narration we follow throughout the film, some of it real, some of it magical, much of it nebulous. The end is coming, the woman says, and you better learn how to survive. Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink, in an impoverished community called the Bathtub, which sits just outside a levy that protects a sprawling, “ugly,” industrial city. “One day the water is going to rise and there will be no more Bathtub, just lots of water.” Hushpuppy is fully prepared to eat her pets should it come to that.
This is a viscerally stunning film, the directorial debut of Benh Zeitlin, who lived in the Bayou communities for seven months making the small budget movie. “Chow time” means gnawing on a whole cooked chicken with one’s hands and spitting out the bones for the dogs. Muddy, gritty, gorgeous; homes are made from collected scraps and debris, as are the sets; the fabulous actors are untrained locals.
There are people I know who refuse to feel sorry for those who choose to live in locations vulnerable to natural destruction, which is good, because pity is the last thing these people want. A catastrophic storm approaching, officials forcing evacuations, it’s hard to grasp the minds of those who stay; Wink, a heavy drinker, a tempered, ferocious, and loving father already dying from some disease, leads his community’s charge. “Freedom” is a word he hollers over and over, and sadly it took me a while to fully grasp its meaning, the pride these people take in living off the land, surviving on buckets of crayfish and catfish, wild chickens and goats, and one another’s kindness, grain alcohol, laughter, fire-lit celebrations. Beasts they are, white and black, children and adults, everyone is equal.
At one point after the storm, officials cart off the stalwart crew to a shelter. After slugging around in the muddy, trashy marshes, the clean white walls, slick floors and soft cots all look inviting. Do Wink and his crew concur? No. “Here, when people get sick, they plug them into walls.” They all escape back home.
At one point, either in real life or in a dream, Hushpuppy and three other girls swim to a barge that takes them to a speakeasy, where the scantily clad women take the cuddle-starved girls literally into their bosoms. Soft music, a hazy dance floor, a pretty young woman who could be Hushpuppy’s missing mother sways around holding the girl in her arms. “This is my favorite thing,” Hushpuppy says with her head resting on the woman’s shoulder. “I know exactly how many times I’ve been held, and I can count them on two fingers.” I so wanted the girl to stay here in this hazy, tender place, but no, she’s going to have to go, her father’s going to die, and she’s going to have to lead the beasts.