They should hand out oxygen tanks before each screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild because writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature film takes your breath in the very first scene and plays keep away with it for more than 90 minutes. When people kvetch about the abundance of remakes and sequels while whining about how “there are just no new ideas anymore,” tape their eyes open and play this movie on repeat. This is an affirmation of the value of the medium, a finger on humanity’s collective pulse and a reminder that there are always, always, always new ways to tell old stories.
¬†So, yeah, I kind of liked it. As is alarmingly infrequently the case, our protagonist is a fierce, brilliant, confident, young black girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan√ƒ¬© Wallis). It remains unclear if Wallis was cast in the role or was simply willed into existence to play this part. Hushpuppy and her daddy, Wink, played by a non-professional actor who will reportedly never act again named Dwight Henry, live in a sort-of-swamp known as “The Bathtub.” The year may remain a mystery, but the place is clearly the Delta region of America, a region threatened by rising waters and poverty.
But Zeitlin transforms the physical space into an imaginary world where boats are made of old truck beds, where children are stalked by mythical and ancient beasts and where the conflict isn’t just poor versus rich or young versus old but humanity versus its own home. Wink, who is quite obviously seriously ill, refuses to leave his natural habitat despite raging waters that promise death. Although he has struggled to raise his 6-year-old girl in the absence of her mother, he has made one decision about her fate: she will not grow to be a sheltered coward but a powerful creature in tune with this world.
From the hazy, faded visuals to the practically impossible performance of Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an allegory of poverty and the most unique coming-ofage story in decades, wrapped in visual poetry. It isn’t even self-indulgent, clocking in at a mere hour and a half and never overstating its themes. Zeitlin’s narrative is all simple sophistication, with each tiny action revealing such bracing character insight. It bristles with honest purpose and, when necessary, spouts revelations in shorthand. For example, take Hushpuppy’s vague dream of her mother manifest in an old basketball jersey, or the final release of Wink in a bite of alligator meat. Perfection.
Trying to explain Beasts of the Southern Wild is like explaining your dream to someone else: It’s meaningless until you experience it on your own. In the decade I have been reviewing movies for The Reader, I would guess I have discussed more than a thousand flicks. While it may be impossible for me to tell you which of those is the finest I have seen, one thing is certain: I am not prepared to cross Beasts of the Southern Wild off that list.
—This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.