Beasts of the Southern Wild (M) 93 mins
Beautiful, wistful, ethereal; an indictment of our planet's failing environmentalism; an extraordinary cast of newcomers.
Young American writer/director Benh Zeitlin took his first feature to Sundance and Cannes where it was ecstatically applauded as visionary film-making. They compared him (at age 30, and with a mere three short films under his belt) to legendary director Terrence Mallick. In Beasts, Zeitlin cast a tiny, feisty five-year-old with preternatural charisma and courage, an incredible afro and the Icelandic volcano of names (here's hoping Quvenzhane Wallis is nominated for an Oscar). So enchanted was he by her apparent abilities, Zeitlin rewrote the story to give her a central role, transposing it from a comedy into a drama.
Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a self-contained ragamuffin living on the wrong side of the levies in Louisiana swamplands. When a major hurricane hits her ramshackle environment, she is forced to fight for survival. Her strange community consists of a loving but unreliable father (an equally startling debut by non-actor Dwight Henry) and drunken but well-meaning neighbours. Hushpuppy sets off on an adventure which is surprising for being both moving and enthralling.
So exquisite is this film, it's difficult to rein in the hyperbole. It's a lesson in self-sustainability and simple communal living with astonishing performances in every scene. The squalid surrounds and snake-infested waters contrast with beautiful photography and fantastic music (also by Zeitlin).
The only serious warning is: sit far back in the cinema. The shaky-cam lost Beasts some admirers at festival viewings.
Take a chance - you may wind up loving every minute.
- © Fairfax NZ News