Behn Zeitlin directs Beasts of the Southern Wild in such a way that the audience cannot help but feel a connection to the film. His use of a handheld camera helps to underscore the feeling of verisimilitude in this semi-realist film. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the narrative element of symbolism illustrates the theme of human development and the importance of human emotions. The audience is able to see the human experience through the lenses of unknown beasts, the web of the universe, and an isolated group of humans. The main protagonist in the film, Hushpuppy, struggles to suppress her human emotions and instincts. However, throughout the movie she learns the importance of emotion and human connection. Throughout the film many cinematic and stylistic techniques such as sequence, sound and point of view help to emphasize the theme and implicit meaning.
In one of the beginning scenes in the film, Hushpuppy goes to a makeshift school. There she is introduced by her teacher to aurochs, an extinct beast frozen in ice caps at the South Pole. From this scene on the viewer is introduced to close-angle shots of the beasts. They journey from the North Pole to Hushpuppy’s home of the “bathtub.” The beasts add a fanciful element to the film, focusing on mythology. This is their explicit role. The aurochs also have a meaningful role in the theme, as they symbolize a conflict (the death of her father) nearing closer and closer to Hushpuppy. For example, in one scene Hushpuppy describes what happens to “broken things.” She narrates that some things get so broken they can never be put back together. She is clearly alluding to her father’s fading health. During this scene, the viewer sees close up angles of the huge aurochs crashing though towns and “breaking” them. Throughout the film, the audience begins to see more of the beasts in line with understanding more of the nature of Hushpuppy’s struggle. This climaxes in the final scene when we see all of the aurochs facing down Hushpuppy. They appear as huge and menacing pig-like creatures. This symbolizes the menacing realization that Hushpuppy will be left alone after her father’s looming death. By molding the aurochs into the sequence of the film, Zeitlin adds to the feeling of childish wonder. He helps the viewer connect with Hushpuppy’s fear. The aurochs also symbolize a change in Hushpuppy’s outlook. In the beginning of the film, Hushpuppy is “wild.” As shown in the scenes in the bars, she yells out and refuses to cry. The beasts are characterized in a similar fashion when they eat their elders after birth. After Hushpuppy’s transformation into realizing the importance of her tears and emotions, the audience is exposed to close-ups of the aurochs’ faces and eyes. This humanizes them, as often eyes are viewed as a “window into the soul.”
Another important symbolic element is the web of life shown in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Humans are connected to the rest of their environment. This concept becomes especially clear with the story of the father, and the use of sound. When the father has his heart attack, the world around them also begins to fall apart. Paralleling his failing health, glaciers crash, and a storm begins. The sound in this scene is an important cinematic tool. The music sounds similar to a beating heart, showing the connection of humans to nature. There are also many “freeze frame” shots of nature. There are scenes of web close-ups to help underline the theme of connectedness.
The key lens that Zeitlin allows the audience to view the story from is that of the isolated humans in the “bathtub.” Point of view is what allows the viewer to see that the story is told from the perspective of Hushpuppy. Throughout the film, there are series of low-angle shots. As Hushpuppy is just a little girl, the viewer puts themselves into her shoes. This angle choice adds to the verisimilitude of the film because older audiences understand the different and more fanciful way children view the world. The best example of this angle is the scene with the mother figure at the end. The audience does not see straight-on views of the woman’s face, but rather everything from Hushpuppy’s normal height. The people in the “bathtub” are cut off from the normal, industrialized world on the other side of the levee. The levee is a literal wall that shows the divide between the two groups. This also ends up showing the value of human emotion and empathy. When the people in the “bathtub” are taken to the medical center near the end of the film, it is portrayed in a negative light. It is too clean and bright seeming. In contrast to the “bathtub,” it seems artificial. The director shows that emotion is what sets humans apart from beasts, not technological advancement and medicine. Another key aspect of the theme is the choice in actors. By making the decision to cast people from both black and white races, it shows the commonality in all human experiences. The thing that bonds them together is where they’ve chosen to live. By the end of the film, the community has evolved emotionally as a whole. In the beginning, their homes are filled with trash and everything appears rather unpleasant and wild. They play with fireworks in a way that seems to lack much thought. In contrast, at the end they are no longer partying, but have gained depth. Their use of fire is symbolic for the end of the father’s life. They learned to control the element.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a highly convincing film. The use of narrative elements and cinematic techniques makes clear the importance of human feeling. The many elements are weaved together in a stunning way that allows the audience to connect on a personal level to the movie. The situation and fears of Hushpuppy can be applied to many other circumstances, helping the film speak to a larger audience.