A remarkable meditation on the balance of nature and the inevitability of change, rookie feature director Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild chronicles the life-changing odyssey of a little girl and her small community as they attempt to keep their way of life afloat following a cataclysmic event.
Six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a fiercely curious child with simple yet profound knowledge about the way the universe fits together. In her bayou shanty town affectionately entitled The Bathtub (a marvelously constructed film environment that brims with character), she lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and an assortment of free-range pets whose heartbeats she is always listening for – a reassurance that the pulse of the universe is still ticking. When news comes that a terrific storm approaches their low-lying tract of land, many head for higher ground, but Wink and a handful of other holdouts stubbournly stay to spite this catastrophic occurrence. Meanwhile, ancient beasts known as aurochs – think Erymanthian Boar, but bigger – are thawed out of the southern polar icecaps, and migrate north out of hunger towards the now sunken Bathtub. With their homes below water, the ragtag group of swamp dwellers band together and eke out a survival plan, while Hushpuppy watches and learns, all the while looking for a way to fix the broken piece of the universe and set things right once more.
Much like the small beasts that Hushpuppy holds up to her ear, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie with mesmerizing heartbeat of its own. Melding social overtones of Hurricane Katrina with strokes of magic realism, Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar (author of the play on which it's based) have fashioned a life-affirming modern fable underlain by themes of environmentalism, community, and above all, change. It's the implacable forces of change that are physically manifested in the film by the fantastical aurochs. What stands to be seen is whether Hushpuppy will resist these forces as her father has, or embrace and master them. The relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink is a tenuous, fluctuating one, and it's also one of the films most brilliantly evoked elements. The odd whirlpool of emotions they share transition seamlessly between love and anger and back to love as the roles of caregiver and dependent shift from old to young. These feelings are given captivating face by Wallis and Henry, whose performances merit major awards attention.
For a first-time helmer, Zeitlin's craft is impressive in its detail. Alex DiGerlando's production design lends eccentric credibility to The Bathtub. Ben Richardson's grainy, intimate hand-held camera work captures amazing images without indulging in overt flashiness, cut together nicely by Crockett Doob and Affonso Goncalves. But perhaps most surprising for an independent rookie effort was the effectiveness of Steve Boeddeker's enveloping sound design, which perfectly balances production audio with Wallis' inner monologue, the vital sound effects, and the wonderful score (which Zeitlin himself co-composed with Dan Romer). This gripping, powerfully wrought fairy tale of hope and coming of age is surely one of the best films of the year.
**** out of ****