Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane’ Wallis) is a 6-year-old girl living on an island somewhere outside New Orleans. They can see the smokestacks of the oil refineries, if they get in their makeshift swamp boat, but mostly she and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live inside the swamp. What serves as a house is an old ramshackle shack with a tin roof. They raise chickens, and will eat them for supper. Or they’ll catch a fish in the bayou, with their bare hands, knock it on the head with their fists, and have it for dinner. Hushpuppy’s momma is gone. She talks to her sometimes, and can hear her voice, telling her to be a good girl. Sometimes she sees images of a woman walking away from her, but she doesn’t really remember much about her. Her dad is vivid to her. He’s an irascible man, short of temper, and you get the feeling that left to himself, he’d rather be left to himself. But he’s got this little girl, and momma’s gone, and he’s not going to abandon her. He’s not going to be easy on her, either. He hardly knows how to show affection. Or even speak a kind or encouraging word. He’s sick, and he’s afraid she won’t be able to take care of herself if something should happen to him, so he teaches her harshly, urgently, and tries to hide from her his fear, which comes across as aloofness.
There are some other people about, but they don’t say much. Some are black, like them, others are white, but all are poor, all scrounge for food off the land, none have jobs, and all view the civilization “out there” as an interfering menace. They send helicopters over with voices blaring over loudspeakers telling them that this area has to be evacuated. The hardscrabble residents don’t want to hear that. They don’t like to be told what to do, they don’t want to be run off their property, and they don’t trust outsiders, anyway.
Hushpuppy can see that her daddy is sick, and scared. He goes away for a couple of days and comes back in a hospital gown with an I.D. band around his wrist, and she asks why he’s wearing a dress and a bracelet, and he yells at her to mind her own business; she wouldn’t understand. He even strikes her, once, and then tries to make it up to her by serving her moonshine from a glass.
But Hushpuppy doesn’t really hate him, because she knows he’s all she’s got. But she has these recurring dreams, or day visions, or whatever they are, of these gigantic beasts heading her way. They’re like feral pigs, except as big as hippopotami, and they’re fast and they’re mean and they have long tusks and they’re headed this way. She also sees, in her mind, the icecaps melting, with the swamp rising, and the appearance of their little spit of land changing forever. Once her dad and some of his swamp friends try to put explosives under the levee to make some of the water go over to the other side rather than theirs. But for Hushpuppy, nothing they do seems to help. And her daddy tells her she can’t cry.
Once, when the outsiders come for them, they are taken to this sterile facility where everybody sleeps on cots under fluorescent lights and eats from paper plates. Hushpuppy sees the sick people being plugged into a wall. She runs away with her daddy back to the swamp, where he has chosen to die, looking at the water. She takes care of his remains like a Viking: put him on his boat and set it afire and shove it out to sea.
We don’t really know what will become of Hushpuppy. Or her way of life. But we feel for the unblinking way she faces her abandonment. And we wonder how much the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are a metaphor.
Ronald P. Salfen is minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.