Some movie lovers value the familiar -- they want to see stories and images that are more or less recognizable, but given a stamp of originality in some way. Others place a premium on uniqueness -- they want to see something they've never seen before. Benh Zeitlin's debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild will appeal greatly to the latter crowd.
Any attempt to explain the plot of this striking picture will make it sound more conventional than it actually is, but the film stars Quvenzhané Wallis -- a first-time actress who was five when she landed the part and six during production -- as Hushpuppy, a poor girl living in huts with her father Wink (Dwight Henry, another first-time actor) as part of a close-knit, ramshackle community in Louisiana called the Bathtub. Wink tries to teach Hushpuppy the skills she'll need to survive if something happens to him, and soon enough, an illness strikes him that will force the six-year-old to grow up quickly. At the same time, her coming-of-age story is symbolized by her need to fight against wild creatures that have seemingly been unleashed by her father's health issues.
Beasts of the Southern Wild isn't a film that can be easily described. From the poetic voice-overs delivered with a plainspoken authority by the lead actress to the lush cinematography of this hurricane-ravaged community to the collision between ethereal fantasy and real-world hardship, the movie forges its own path and wants nothing more than for you to discover this scary, alluring place just as our young hero does.
Director Benh Zeitlin workshopped this film at the renowned Sundance Lab, which also helped bring such memorable debuts as Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs to fruition. The influence of that program is fairly obvious in certain ways; like many Sundance films, Beasts shows us a little-seen subculture in America and tells the story of the people who live there utilizing local folk traditions. However, Zeitlin abandons any attempt to force this material into preconceived notions of what a story should or shouldn't be. He's forgoing a familiar structure in order to get at something more elemental -- he wants to trigger our childhood anxieties and wonder about the world, spotlight a community that has suffered much to be who they are, and leave us with the knowledge that we are strong enough to overcome even unknowable fear.
Because feel and tone matter so much more than plot, the movie does have a certain lack of narrative drive. Individual sequences provide dramatic conflict, but there isn't a compelling straightforward goal that pushes us along. Although it's certainly a fairy tale, this is not some quick and easy Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen fable. That's going to be a problem for anyone who isn't caught up in the wholly original vision of the piece, but in his willingness to ignore convention, Zeitlin does reveal a confidence that few first-time directors display. He's made a film that's the antithesis of Hollywood's summer mind-set, and if that sounds like what you've been waiting for, Beasts of the Southern Wild may stick with you for longer than you expect.