Believe the hype: Beasts of the Southern Wild is poetic and enchanting
The area is fully flooded, however, and an illegal breach of a remaining levee drains it but can't repair the devastation wrought on plants, animals, and homes. The holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate at last, sequestered in a relief shelter-hospital whose sterility and order is as alien to them as the surface of Mars. Worse, this exile hastens the serious illness Wink was able to keep (mostly) at bay in the Bathtub — as the wary say, hospitals are where sick people go to die.
With its elements of magic (or at least the illustration of a child's belief in such), mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology — Gina Montana's Amazonian schoolmarm Miss Bathsheeba defines her eat-or-be-eaten perspective with "Everything is part of the buffet of the universe" — Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb. Particularly for a low-budget movie with non-professional actors; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick's 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film's cost and length. Its messiness is an organic virtue, with grainy imagery whose hand-held spastic camerawork (by Ben Richardson) is for once much more than a trendy stylistic choice; the instability feels in synch with Hushpuppy's world, in vibrates with the slightest clue provided by glance, weather, or instinct.
The frenetic yet amorphous atmosphere might on a first viewing make you question whether there's really much story beneath the busy aesthetic surface, but in fact for all its freely digressive air Beasts is pretty tightly constructed. (Nonetheless, you can imagine the editors scratching their heads initially over how this footage might possibly cut together, unless they were in on the project from the start.) Adding to that spectral, hyperreal effect is a score by Dan Zomer and Zeitlin that combines keening or plucked strings with the ethereal chime of a glockenspiel, at times sounding like a Sufjan Stevens instrumental.
There are moments of real enchantment, like an all-girls' side trip to a floating bordello whose bosomy ladies surrender to their maternal instincts, or the recurrent glimpses that see Hushpuppy's hog gradually morph into a thundering pack of tusked, primeval wild boars. (Toward the end especially, this latter effect underlines the notion that the film's closest recent antecedent is Spike Jonze's 2009 Where the Wind Things Are, another child's feral fantasy.)
Through it all the pint-sized Wallis (who was just five when she was chosen from some 4000 auditioning kids) strides with astonishing alertness and confidence, a vulnerable minor one minute, as regally self-possessed as Pam Grier in Coffy (1973) the next.
It would almost be a shame if she did anything else — this performance would be best preserved as a mysterious lone bolt from the blue, just as the movie itself seems to capture unrepeatable lightning in a bottle.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD opens Fri/6 in San Francisco.