Faced with both her hot-tempered father's fading health and melting ice-caps that flood her ramshackle bayou community and unleash ancient aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy must learn the ways of courage and love.
There are two things which are routinely difficult to get over on mainstream audiences: extremely low-budget films (which are often assumed to be bad because they are cheap) and the whimsical (assumed to be childish because they can be silly). Defeating that mindset often requires a great of creativity and originality to get over what can't be white-washed with money and technical skill. Fortunately writer-director Benh Zeitlin's 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' has creativity and originality in spades.
Deep in the Louisiana bayou lies the Bathtub, a commune of the poor and destitute who have turned the lack of help they have received from their fellows into a strength. They've returned to living on the land as best they can, reusing whatever it is they can find be it an old gator skin or an abandoned trailer. More importantly, they've used their desperate straits not to turn from each other but to turn towards each other, developing an unrelenting bond of extended family and further connected to the nature around it.
This is the world young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) has been born, a young savant with an intense connection to the world around her, able she imagines to understand the thoughts of the beasts she and her friends rely on to live. She has harder time, however, in understanding her father Wink (Dwight Henry) a harsh man who is not entirely sure how to express his love for her especially when he learns that he is desperately ill and not likely to get better.
Zeitlin has done what good independent directors have always had to do; make the most of what he has to cover up for what he doesn't. The extensive Louisiana backdrop he has cast as his canvas more than makes up for his general lack of traditional set direction though there is plenty of that, just well hidden in order to match the area's he is focused on.
This requirement is well matched to the naturalism of the world Hushpuppy and the residents of the Bathtub live in. In fact it is only when they are forcibly taken into a traditional set—a medical area for helping the poor after a terrible storm nearly destroys the Bathtub—that any part of 'Beasts' begins to feel fake or at least alien and slightly sinister.
Zeitlin is also, it must be said, the beneficiary of a great deal of luck. Photographer Ben Richardson has painted a brilliant 16mm portrait of rural Louisiana, creating a fascinating, only slightly realistic world which is relentlessly visually inventive. Almost as inventive as Zeitlin's own score for the film.
But nothing could have been as fortunate as the discovery of Wallis. It takes a lot of guts, and not a little insanity, to trust a film to a five-year-old girl. That wager pays out in spades in 'Beasts' however as Wallis' natural charm and fantastical line readings allows her to carry the entire film as easily as any seasoned professional. She truly is a find and as well visualized as Zeitlin's film is, it would never have worked if he weren't getting an Oscar caliber performance from Wallis throughout the film.
If there's as much luck as craft on display then in 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' that's okay; it was ever thus where art has been concerned and likely always will be. It's the results which matter, far more so than that style of the story or the resources put into, and the results here are grand indeed.