At the end of John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Ma Joad sums up the life of the poor and downtrodden.
“Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out,” she says. “But we keep a comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”
Those lines were in my mind as I watched “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
“Beasts” tells the story of a force of will named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis). Hushpuppy is 6 years old, and she lives in the “Bathtub” – the part of New Orleans outside the city, beyond the levy wall.
It’s a piece of land below sea level where life is lived on a primal level, but with a sense of celebration that the rest of the world misses.
Hushpuppy lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry). Her mother, according to her daddy, “swam away.” It’s just the two of them.
Wink lives to survive, the best he can. His life is centered around teaching Hushpuppy how to catch food to eat, giving her inner strength to live and drinking to ease his pain. His pain is more than psychological. Wink is sick.
He is so sick that he disappears for several days, leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself. Most of us would be shocked to see a 6-year-old taking care of herself, but Hushpuppy sails through these days.
She wonders where her daddy is, but she has the resources to keep herself together. Wink comes back, still wearing a hospital gown and bracelet.
The Bathtub is the village that raises the child. Hushpuppy has many that love her. It is community for the sake of each other. But that community is put to the test when Katrina strikes.
What follows is the beginning of the end. What we see is the living out of those words said by Ma Joad.
We see the people doing the living. No storm, no sickness, no power is going to keep these people down. They are going to continue to do the living in spite of all that is thrown at them.
“Beasts” is truly a magical movie. It is told from the point of view of Hushpuppy, so it has the magical imaginings of a child. Hushpuppy uses the power of her imagination to live through all of the horror that is her life.
She believes in the power of the universe. Hushpuppy declares, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece … the whole universe will get busted.”
She believes her place in the universe is to ensure that what gets busted in her gets fixed by her determination to live on, in spite of all that happens.
The beasts of the title are “aurochs.” In history, these were more akin to our cattle of today.
These are imagined by Hushpuppy to be giant boars that come roaming down from the frozen north, and they are part of what gets loose in the universe that needs fixing.
The only way they can be fixed is to be faced. And even aurochs are not strong enough to overcome Hushpuppy.
This movie, from first-time director Benh Zeitlin, is a work of art and sort of like an impressionist painting of a life. We do not see all the details clearly, but we see that which stands out the most in the mind of Hushpuppy.
And Quvenzhane Wallis gives one of the great performances of the year. The embodiment of will seen in this young person is a revelation. I do not know if she will be nominated for an Oscar, but to overlook her would be a shame.
The movie is not pretty because the hard-scrabble life of the poor is not something to be romanticized.
But seeing it from the point of view of a child that is only trying to live, as best she can, gives us an insight much needed in our sanitized vision of the world.
This movie is one of the best so far this year.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality.
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writers: Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar
Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis: Hushpuppy; Dwight Henry: Wink; Levy Easterly: Jean Battiste; Lowell Landes: Walrus; Pamela Harper: Little Jo; Gina Montana: Miss Bathsheeba.
The movie’s website is here.