Normally when I review a movie, I try to situate it within some sort of frame of reference that will give the reader some sense of what to expect if, in fact, they ultimately decide to fork over a chunk of their life to watching it. I would apologize if I was utterly stumped to provide such a vantage point, thinking that I’d failed you as a critic who has nothing to offer but hyperbolic language and particularly impressive memory of the synonyms for great in the thesaurus. But in the case of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” I feel no such urge. Defying all expectation and comparison, it is a movie that must be experienced to be believed.
I can’t provide you an auteur perspective since this is director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature-length film, although if someone had told me this was a Terrence Malick film, I wouldn’t have questioned it. (The phenomenal cinematography by Ben Richardson certainly rivals “The Tree of Life” in terms of capturing the beauty of nature.) His unflappable confidence is something that he hopefully will not lose with the blinding lights of Hollywood.
Have no doubt about it, “Beasts” is a movie that could only by an uncorrupted visionary like Zeitlin. His ambition soars to the sky, and even in the rare occasions where it falls short, we are left in awe of the sheer gutsiness of the decision. I guess if you really need a comparison, it’s a “2001: A Space Odyssey” in terms of uniqueness and daring.
You’ve also never seen these actors before (except maybe if you’re one of the few people who still watches Jay Leno), so me telling you that Quvenzhané Wallis gives one of the mightiest, most formidable performances I’ve ever seen. It too eludes comparison because common sense declares it a fool’s task to entrust an entire movie to a six-year-old, and no one would put such a load on such a small and untested back. Yet she carries the movie with the poise of an actress ten times her age!
As Hushpuppy, the mettlesome tyke from Lousiana’s “The Bathtub,” she must navigate her character through a number of apocalyptic crises. The first is the loss of her community to an environmental disaster so fierce that it reawakens prehistoric predators called aurochs. And in case that wasn’t enough, her father (Dwight Henry) is a stentorian guardian whose health fades as they go looking for Hushpuppy’s mother in the wake of the disaster. Both Henry and Wallis’ performances bear the mark of undeniable authenticity; indeed, both are natives of the region and bring the bruise and the spirit of a post-Katrina world into the picture.
So in case you haven’t figured it out yet, you’ve never seen a movie like “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” In an era where plot points are passed down like hand-me-down clothes and films stick to formula like white on rice, this should make you giddy. And if you don’t go out and support this movie now, you may never see another movie like it. B+ /