Count on summer’s low tide to drag in the usual flotsam. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter: Really? And a recast, rebooted Spider-Man only five years after the last one? I know. Sad, right?
So hold on for a game-changer that gets you excited about movies again. It’s called Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s won every prize from Sundance to Cannes. It introduces a gifted feature director in Benh Zeitlin, 29, who should soon be introduced to Oscar voters. And it creates a world to get lost in, a world of beauty, terror and mythic wonder. Zeitlin says he wanted to merge “the poetics of an art film with something that feels like Die Hard.”
Mission accomplished. Fierce creatures roam the post-Katrina Louisiana bayou that’s home to six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis – remember the name, she’s a flat-out amazement). Motherless and caring for her dying, hard-drinking daddy, Wink (a terrific Dwight Henry), Hushpuppy isn’t afraid of poverty, hurricanes or rampaging aurochs that emerge from melting polar ice caps. Her life in the aptly named Bathtub teems with grueling challenges. Her house sits on shaky stilts, and her daddy’s boat is the back end of a truck propped up on oil barrels. Yet the resilient Hushpuppy feels connected to a remote community that lives in harmony with the not-always-friendly forces of nature.
Shot on a shoestring, Beasts is some kind of miracle, a tribute to the people who stay rooted to home against flood and forced evacuation. The shimmer of magic realism pervades the film, written by Zeitlin and playwright Lucy Alibar, and cinematographer Ben Richardson catches its grit and grace.
The Queens-born Zeitlin, who moved to New Orleans in 2006 and released a storm-inspired short, Glory at Sea, two years later, is clearly enthralled by his adopted region and its people. With the help of Court 13, a collective he co-founded, Zeitlin shot on location using locals as actors (Henry is a baker) and bringing a vibrant culture to thrilling life onscreen.
There’s no way you won’t be captivated by Wallis, chosen ahead of 3,500 candidates to play the tiny folk hero who narrates the story. Her performance in this deceptively small film is a towering achievement. In the eye of the storm, Hushpuppy proudly blurts to her worried daddy, “I’m the man.” That she is. And her spellbinding movie is not to be missed.