"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is sheer poetry on screen: an explosion of joy in the midst of startling squalor and one of the most visceral, original films to come along in a while.
The story of a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) living on a remote, primal strip of eroding land in the southernmost reaches of the Louisiana bayou is so ambitious and so accomplished, it's amazing that it's only the first feature film from director Benh Zeitlin. Working from a script he co-wrote with longtime friend Lucy Alibar, based on her play, Zeitlin deftly mixes a sense of childhood wonder with the harsh realities of the adult world.
His film is at once dreamlike and brutal (the gorgeous work of cinematographer Ben Richardson), ethereal yet powerfully emotional. Fight it all you like, but this movie will get to you by the end. And he's coaxed some surprisingly strong performances from a couple of inexperienced actors he had the daring to place front-and-center.
Wallis, who was only 6 when shooting began, has a fierce presence beyond her years with her wild hair and bright eyes, but also a plucky, girlish sweetness. This is Hushpuppy's fairy tale but she's no damsel in distress, which is clear from the first moment we see her.
Hushpuppy's mother left long ago; now she and her ailing, alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), are living together on the narrow and ruggedly beautiful Isle de Jean Charles, known affectionately by the rag-tag locals in the film as "The Bathtub." As her father becomes consumed by poor health and drink — and with a damaging storm on the way — she must figure out how to survive on her own.
Even before these pressing problems arose, though, Wink wasn't exactly the most traditional father. Living side-by-side in separate trailers propped up in makeshift fashion, the two are more like next-door neighbors who pal around and share whatever dinner they can scrounge up. At best, Hushpuppy's daddy is neglectful; at worst, he disappears for days. Still, you know he loves his daughter and — when he's around — he teaches her to be strong and tries to protect her in his own feeble, erratic way.
The character and the unorthodox parental bond depicted are sure to provoke mixed, complex responses from viewers, but "Beasts of the Southern Wild" never judges Wink. That's an impressive feat in itself, but what's even more amazing is that Henry had never acted before. Zeitlin found him at the bakery he runs in New Orleans and persuaded him to take part in the production. His presence, and that of all the good-time locals, adds to the air of authenticity.
Obviously, these two aren't going anywhere, and neither are their friends; an unshakable sense of pride and territoriality fortifies them. We saw this again and again as Hurricane Katrina barreled toward southern Louisiana: folks who saw no reason to leave. This was their home. They stood firm. Katrina is never mentioned by name and it doesn't need to be. The idea of a landscape-altering storm is just one of the many mythical elements at work here.
Some of the magical realism imagery may seem a little too literal, too obvious, and may not work for everyone. Hushpuppy, who also narrates the film, envisions giant, prehistoric beasts storming toward her home from far away — the fantastical manifestation in her mind of the real-life threats that are imminent. But they're all of a piece in a film that's wild and wondrous, and one of the year's best.
The only drawback is that some of the kids who could benefit the most from witnessing such a display of bravery and resourcefulness are too young to experience it — unless maybe they have open-minded parents, too.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sexuality. Running time: 91 minutes.