Film's fantastical elements, cast result in moving experience

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Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry star in Behn Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Associated Press/Fox Searchlight Pictures, Jess Pinkham.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Fox Searchlight; 91 mins.

Filmmakers are often drawn to the great cities of the world as their locations precisely because of the distinctness of their identities, the way that their locales are instantly recognizable to audiences. Directors like Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese have consistently impressed with the way they brought cities like New York or Paris to life. However, it’s even more amazing when a director can create a world entirely from scratch, immersing audiences in a singular location never seen before, and that certainly happens in Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

The film’s central setting is the Bathtub, a small community of misfits living in ecstatic squalor on the wrong side of the Louisiana levees. The Bathtub is full of interesting personalities, but “Beasts” is built around Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a small girl with a big heart, and her tumultuous relationship with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry).

There’s not much plot to “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and what little story the film does have is hung around a flood that overtakes the Bathtub and releases beasts, long-frozen beings called aurochs that seem to function mostly as metaphor until a sobering, gorgeous scene toward the end of the film. What Zeitlin’s screenplay lacks in story, is made up for in atmosphere. The Bathtub is a delicately crafted, separate world that these characters inhabit. It’s an alien place, but full of human connections and passion, and makes for a wonderful setting.

Even better is Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy. Wallis was a complete unknown before being cast, and she does an incredible job giving Hushpuppy her own inner life, full of defiance, soul and vulnerability. Wallis’ portrayal of the character is so complete, her emotions simple, yet vivid and definite. It’s nearly impossible to separate the actress from the character, and one can only hope that we see equally impressive work from the young actress in the future.

Also unknown before “Beasts” was Henry, who plays Wink, Hushpuppy’s father. Wink can be a relentless jerk at times, and the blunt edge of his short temper comes across a bit too strongly too often, but there’s never any denying that Wink loves Hushpuppy. Their relationship is often volatile, but the tiny details in Henry’s interactions with Wallis paint an interesting, often moving picture.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been gestating for years, partially developed in a Sundance Screenwriters Lab, yet the film has a singular voice and perspective, filled with moments of pure, majestic beauty and stunning intimacy. The writing for the film evokes the early work of David Gordon Green (who gets a special thanks in the film’s credits), and there are small bits of the film, including Hushpuppy’s dialogue, that lapse into pure poetry. The film’s musical score, by Zeitlin and Dan Romer, is another integral element of the film: a triumphant, immediate line right to the vibrant beating heart of the Bathtub, and key to many of its most memorable sequences.

The film suffers from a lack of momentum here and there, but is hypnotizing nonetheless. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is exactly the type of film that cinema buffs dream about discovering and reveling in, and now they finally have the chance to experience one of the year’s most magical films.