Beasts of the Southern Wild: Believe the HypeS

You want an unadulterated, neatly packaged expression of pride? See Beasts of the Southern Wild. And even if you don't want that, you should still see Benh Zeitlin's arresting first film. Gorgeous, poignant and plainspoken in its achievement of both so as to come off as humble, this movie exists to make adverbs modify the word "original." "Boldly original" says Movieline. "Strikingly original," says Entertainment Weekly. "Fiercely original," says Hitflix. "Dazzlingly original," says the Sydney Morning Herald.

Set in a mythical Louisiana bayou called the Bathtub, Beasts finds its characters, including principles Wink (Dwight Henry) and his 6-year-old daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, whose appeal is so visceral, she could probably run for Queen of the World one day and win) ferociously holding onto their roots. When someone shows Hushpuppy a neat way to pick apart a crab with a utensil for eating, Wink forbids her from replicating the process, instead insisting that she "beast it" by ripping it apart with her hands, just like nature intended. Their small group encourages her to do the same by chanting, "Beast it!" When she finally does, she puts her arms up in muscular triumph.

Their cultural tenacity holds even when a flood saturates them and threatens to destroy their isolated community. "Nobody's leaving the Bathtub!" announces Wink to his daughter and their submerged, impoverished but proud community. When the environment becomes entirely untenable and they're forced to evacuate to a nearby hospital, the culture shock reverberates off the screen in blinding, sterile whiteness. "It looked more like a fish tank with no water," is Hushpuppy's narration. "When an animal gets sick here, they plug it into a wall."

Hushpuppy's obsessed with animals and their heartbeats and the balance of nature. "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right," she says in a way that should grate coming from a 6-year-old, but instead illustrates the cultural priorities of the Bathtub.

Zeitlin's about as obsessed with the raw joy of being alive on this earth as his protagonist. "I put all the wisdom and courage I've got into her. She's the person I want to be," the director has said. His film feels feral and documentary-esque. The picture is grainy and saturated in earth tones. The pacing is matter-of-fact. Shots are at times so wide that we can see the entire range of motion it takes to climb up onto a platform, for example, and at others so tight that the screen is a blur. The several animals handled by Hushpuppy give their scenes a sense of candor.

And then there are the symbolic aurochs, here presented as boar-like cattle, that haunt Hushpuppy and chart her character's progress. These and other similarly hallucinatory imagery give Beasts a sense of artifice, a joy of cinema within a movie about the joy of nature. A.V. Club's Noel Murray compares Beasts to a "live-action Miyazaki film," as apt of a thumbnail sketch as you'll ever find about this complex work.

There are moments in Beasts that should be canonized as film iconography, including a shot of Hushpuppy running with her arms out, holding two roman candles (as seen on the poster) and Wink's devastating, brief explanation of death to his daughter. Since debuting at Sundance and going on to take home the Grand Jury Prize and Excellence in Cinematography Award, Beasts has been a critical sensation and in such an inert, underwhelming year for film, it's so wonderful to see something so gorgeous and self-assured.

If you've done any reading about Beasts, you know its reputation. This review is one in a pile of raves. It's like Hushpuppy says: "I'm a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right." Yep, and Beasts makes them even righter.