Benh Zeitlin's 2006 short film, "Glory at Sea," rendered post-Katrina grief with an overwhelming sense of magic realism that quickly turned the project into a sleeper hit on the festival circuit. "Beasts of the Southern Wild," Zeitlin's feature-length debut, contains much of the same thing, repeated ad infinitum for roughly 90 minutes: Zeitlin offers up a majestic encapsulation of a child's worldview. Supremely ambitious and committed to profundity, "Beasts" sets the bar too high and suffers from a muddled assortment of expressionistic concepts, but it still manages to glide along its epic aspirations.
Zeitlin's lavish setting is an imaginary community called "The Bathtub" off the coast of Southern Louisiana, where a six-year-old African-American girl named Hushpuppy (a stunningly committed performance from newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) lives on the swampier side of a levee with her strict father Wink (Dwight Henry), who relishes his daughter with hyperbolic tales of her absent mother. As Wink suffers from a terminal illness, Hushpuppy's reality gradually dissolves, a transition Zeitlin renders with a fantastic eye for natural wonder. The whole movie inhabits Hushpuppy's outlook, as she listens to those around her and draws colorful conclusions.
"The fabric of the universe is coming unraveled," a teacher explains to Hushpuppy's class, possibly discussing climate change. "Y'all better learn to survive." The advice might draw from allegory, but Hushpuppy takes it literally, establishing numerous cutaways to ice floes and other natural disasters. Hushpuppy's world never seems entirely stable; she first appears floating along the river on top of a pickup truck and many of the buildings in her community drift along the current as well.
These images never stale, but they rarely congeal into the emotional journey that "Beasts" wants. While the movie's countless flights of fancy bear a child's perspective, they also seem like they were written by one: The big picture lacks focus in deference to its shiny visuals.
Technically, "Beasts" is an adaptation Lucy Alibar's play, "Juicy and Delicious," who wrote the screenplay with Zeitlin; however, there's no question that the movie is a dazzling cinematic experience.The first act delivers a spectacular immersion into Zeitlin's self-made universe, where Hushpuppy sees everything she believes in. Each scene delivers another fresh shot of eye candy, if not coherence, but the general symbolism rings true. Shots of mammoth pigs charging across the landscape toward Hushpuppy's abode mark the incoming pressure of new responsibilities, as does the main character's Terrence Malick-like voiceover ("Strong animals know when their hearts are weak," Hushpuppy observes, in one of many ambiguously introspective moments.)
The natural imagery and voiceover, combined with a fetishization of southern stereotypes and the plight of outcasts, has already led many early viewers to describe "Beasts" as a Malick homage with a dash of Harmony Korine, although that's a better description for David Zellners' "Kid-Thing," also playing Sundance, which draws on those reference points with edgier results. "Beasts" relies too heavily on pathos to justify the same description. Instead, it has more in common with Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are" in that Zeitlin strives to render the interior of a child's mind with vivid imagery in literally every frame.
Those images alone define the story, which makes the appeal of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" entirely reliant on its otherworldly flourishes. It's hard to get the essence of "Beasts" without accepting that Zeitlin cares less about coherence than transcendent formalism. There's plenty to marvel at, but far less to feel. If nothing else, this memorable effort eloquently displays Hushpuppy's fragile understanding of her world, where the only certainty is that nothing lasts forever. That makes "Beasts" into a gigantic triumph even when it falls apart.
Criticwire grade: B+
[Editor's Note: This review originally ran during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where "Beasts" world premiered. It opens in select theaters this Wednesday via Fox Searchlight.]