For once, believe the hype. Since taking Sundance and Cannes by storm, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” had been one of those films lionized by filmmakers and critics but next to no one has actually seen.
The film sprang out of nowhere, with a 6-year-old lead actress and a novice leading man who was hired from behind the counter of a New Orleans bakery. The screenplay was dreamlike and strange, the production crew was inexperienced and the guerrilla grass-roots shoot was barely controlled chaos. Yet it's one of the most singular and assured debuts in American film history. Now it can finally be experienced in all its impressionistic audiovisual glory.
And what glory it is. It fills the screen with visual poetry that plays like intimate documentary.
The setting is the Bathtub, a low-lying Louisiana Gulf Coast island whose dirt-poor residents have a precarious, off-the-grid life.
Our heroine and narrator is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhanť Wallis), a wild child with a waterfall Afro. She lives with her tough-loving daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry, the baker). Life is hardscrabble, sometimes frightening, but not unhappy.
The film weaves in and out of people's lives without a story, but in doing so tells thousands of stories.
Impressionistically, director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin shows us how people in the community spend their days. The kids play. So do some grownups.
Casting nonprofessionals in the film's top roles heightens the feel of reality. Wallis is irresistibly watchable and emotionally compelling. Henry's performance makes wild unpredictable hairpin swings through pride, anger, melancholy and delight. Through it all he's so distinctively earthy you never feels he's acting a part.
There may be a handful of moments when the dialogue comes across awkwardly, but the feelings communicated are spontaneous and undeniably real.
If one quality about this beautiful film impresses me more than another, it's how little it tries to make a statement about anything. There's no predigested third-act climax, but a tapering off that feels poetically perfect.