On the surface, an indie movie about an adorable little moppet named Hushpuppy living in a tight-knit Southern community known as The Bathtub sounds twee beyond repair. But Beasts of the Southern Wild, a drama about what happens to this girl, her father, and their community after a Katrina-like storm floods them out of their ramshackle homes, has a lot more on its mind.
Combining a filthy realism with smidgens of scary fantasy – think Terrence Malick meets Terry Gilliam – the film doesn't romanticize the squalid conditions that Hushpuppy (a seriously good Quvenzhané Wallis, who was all of six years old when the movie was shot) lives in, or her relationship with her dangerously crazy father (Dwight Henry, excellent). It is a tough, rather uncompromising vision, courtesy of newcomer Benh Zeitlin, adapting cowriter Lucy Alibar's one act play Juicy and Delicious. And let me just say that I can't begin to wrap my head around the idea that this was once a play. Beasts of the Southern Wild is as grand and untamed as its protagonists. How its story would have played out on a tiny stage just boggles my mind.
Zeitlin fills his film with beasts of all kinds – graphic scenes of animals being savagely eaten, or lying around dead and rotting, will put off the vegetarians in the audience – and the human characters are so feral that the film's title applies to them too (it is, perhaps, a little too on the nose). Beasts of the Southern Wild isn't for everybody, but I enjoyed it simply because I found it so overwhelmingly cinematic. This is a film meant to be seen on a big screen. Zeitlin has a great eye and shows a lot of promise; it would be a shame if his inevitable Hollywood followup winds up being garbage.