The aurochs, wild ancestor of the domestic cattle of our day, is a fascinating creature. Or perhaps I should say was: The last recorded living aurochs died in Poland in 1627. Since the 1920s there have been several genetic experiments to try to “recreate” the aurochs by selectively crossbreeding specimens of cattle that preserve much of its ancestral DNA, with some success. But for all practical purposes, the aurochs is generally regarded as extinct.
This wild ür-bovine was a bit bigger than contemporary cows, with bulls capable of reaching five feet in height at the shoulder and topping out well over a ton in weight. You probably wouldn’t want to bait one, like the young bloods of Pamplona. But like its smaller modern descendants, the aurochs was a herbivore, essentially placid in nature.
Unfortunately, 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) – the protagonist of Benh Zeitlin’s independent fantasy/drama film Beasts of the Southern Wild, which captured both the Caméra d’Or and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last January – doesn’t know this. All she knows of the aurochs is the alarming stories that she has heard from the schoolteacher serving her isolated Mississippi Delta community, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), who bears a tattoo of cave paintings of aurochs on her arm.
Miss Bathsheeba’s unorthodox teaching methods merge an imperfect understanding of modern environmental science with folklore and hoodoo medicine. She warns her young charges that the catastrophes of global warming will not only include rises in sea level that will permanently swamp their bayou home, known locally as the Bathtub, but also release terrifying Ice Age creatures from the melting glaciers. She depicts the aurochs as a gigantic, ferocious carnivore that eats its own young along with humans.
In Hushpuppy’s mind’s eye – and onscreen – the aurochs is a sort of wild boar of elephantine size, armed with both horns and tusks. And it becomes her personal symbol of the disasters that loom over her family and her community, which she knows that she will soon need to face alone. Her mother has disappeared; we are not told whether she died or just left – Hushpuppy says that she “swam away.” Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), does what he can to keep Hushpuppy fed, housed, clothed, schooled and safe in an environment of both rapturous natural beauty and grinding poverty. But he also drinks heavily to self-medicate against the pain of an unnamed blood disease – presumably sickle-cell anemia – of which he is slowly dying.
In his drunken states, and his panic about Hushpuppy’s scary future, he whacks her around and tells her to “be a man” so that she can survive on her own. When we meet her, his daughter already shows extraordinary precocity, powerful determination and a profound sense of wonder about the workings of the natural world, expressed with heartbreaking poetry in her internal monologue that forms the narrative of the film. “The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” she reports on what she has learned from Miss Bathsheeba. “Sometimes you could break something so bad that it can’t get put back together. When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.”
One of the things that can’t be fixed is a whopping great storm that may or may not have been Hurricane Katrina. In any case, the levees fail to protect the Bathtub from massive inundation; but Wink and Hushpuppy resist evacuation orders and wait it out. Afterwards they ply the swollen waterways in Wink’s “boat,” which is actually the bed of an old pickup truck, buoyed by stacks of tires and propelled by a small outboard motor. They quickly reconnect with a number of their neighbors both black and Cajun who have stayed behind in the storm, united by shared poverty and a sort of zesty, cussed determination to preserve the place that they call home.
Somehow, lighthouses have come to symbolize her mother to Hushpuppy; and when her father has a major health crisis, she sets out with three other girls and some flotation devices to swim their way to a distant beacon. A powerboat picks them up and drops them off at the source of the light: a sort of floating restaurant and brothel. There Hushpuppy finds some unaccustomed nurturing at the hands of a woman who certainly looks enough like her to be her vanished mother. On their way back, the children are pursued by giant porcine “aurochs,” and Hushpuppy is forced to confront her deepest fears full-on.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a low-budget film and shows it on a technical level, with lots of shaky camerawork and images going in and out of focus. But the cumulative effect of the dreamlike narrative and powerfully understated performances is mesmerizing, and Quvenzhané Wallis in particular is a truly extraordinary find. Who among us, the comparatively privileged, could hope to match the courage and philosophical acceptance of adversity of this tiny girl? “Everybody loses the thing that made them,” says Hushpuppy. “It’s even how it’s s’posed to be in nature.” That’s quite a lesson to have internalized by the age of 6 – even if you don’t have the details of the anatomy of an aurochs down quite right.