Beasts of the Southern Wild ★★★★½

Six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in a small and forgotten bayou community called “the Bathtub”. The pair take pleasure from their simple lives; Hushpuppy attends a small school where she is taught the bare necessities from her teacher Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montanna). She spends her playtime amusing herself with broken, old toys and she carves messages for the future on the inside of boxes which litter her shack-for-one. Her father is only a yell away, inebriating himself in his own shack after spending the day scouring the surrouding water for shellfish and various other sea life to feed the local residents. Life is as gratifying and serene as it could possibly be, exploring the wild scrub, living off the land and lighting up ferociously vivid fireworks with the other townsfolk; yet global warming is to significantly impact upon the community’s lives, and Hushpuppy is to be pushed on an affecting and personal journey which will change her life forever.

So unfolds Beasts of the Southern Wild, the masterful directorial debut of Benh Zeitlin. A fully loaded, intricately crafted and absurdly dense story which explores a number of societal dilemmas in the most original fashion, the film is itself an extremely visceral and organic experience for any filmgoer. Told from the eyes of our six year old protagonist, the film offers an innocence and purity unlike any other story which dares to throw out such a heavy gauntlet to its audience. That gauntlet, a discourse of society’s most dark and innate problems, is handled in such a perfectly balanced way by Zeitlin, slipping in various references to a number of society’s most loaded and moralistic issues, notably those which affect the environment. The film certainly takes a strong standpoint but it never becomes overwhelming or zealous, and that is a credit to Zeitlin’s incredible talent.

Wallis gives what is an inspired and intuitive performance as Hushpuppy, and she singlehandedly wins hearts by navigating the audience through her character’s journey in a charismatic and beautifully natural way. The remainder of the cast are also effective, particularly Henry who contrasts perfectly with Hushpuppy’s radiantly virtuous nature. The film is edited well, with images of the polar ice caps melting interjected into the primitive beauty of the Bathtub. The cinematography is particularly affecting, and an extremely underplayed score is perfect for illustrating the even-handed tone of the film.

Beasts is a film of restrained beauty, never pushing too hard, but urging its audience just enough to enter the rudimentary world which Hushpuppy and her friends inhabit. Tying together the story of a young girl discovering her truth and a richly-fashioned subtext of significant resonance, the film is a thought-provoking and wonderfully enriching story, worth a watch if only for Wallis and Zeitlin’s capacity to balance the many priorities of a highly important and beautifully told story.