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The parents of director Benh Zeitlin are folklorists, which is as good a way as any to account for the ambitions of his first feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film is a mythic odyssey laced with modern ecological anxieties, captured in a free-form, image-driven narrative that recalls Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. It's clear from the outset that Zeitlin aims to take the family folklore business to the next level.
His narrator is a 6-year-old, motherless African-American girl called Hushpuppy, who lives in a Louisiana tidal basin — known as the Bathtub — and wonders about how people in future civilizations will tell her story. Over heaps of crawfish and crabs, Hushpuppy envisions the world that might arrive with an imminent storm.
Most cultures have ancient flood stories, but this one is explicitly attributed to global warming and the melting of polar ice caps; Hushpuppy even has visions of Arctic avalanches. The time frame is purposely vague, the vibe post-apocalyptic.
Her watery community of multiracial outcasts lies downstream from a levee, its scattered dwellings pieced together out of rusted bric-a-brac, whatever has been scavenged or washed up. On the dry side of that levee sits a huge and ominous factory, its stacks visible through a gray haze, as if Oz had been seized by polluters.
Zeitlin's characters, most played by nonprofessional actors, are survivors but not salt-of-the-Earth types. Many appear to be serious alcoholics — including Hushpuppy's father, Wink, who lives in a separate house connected to his daughter's by a long rope.
Played by a New Orleans baker named Dwight Henry, Wink is a raging mess. Criminally neglectful at first, he's shamed into acting more fatherly — even if that manifests itself in weird ways, as in a scene in which he soothes his frightened daughter by grabbing his gun, racing outside and firing into the storm to drive it off.
I can't tell how planned-out the shots are, but they look catch-as-catch-can, the hand-held camera swerving over the landscape, often in tune with the characters' emotions. Zeitlin has a heartwarming camera subject in Quvenzhane Wallis, who was 5 when she was picked from a reported 4,000 candidates to play Hushpuppy.
Under a mop of hair is a moppet's face, clear and soft and watchful. She says, "When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces." She thinks a lighthouse signal from a distant shore is meant for her — her absent mama reaching out — and tries to think of how to answer back.
Beasts of the Southern Wild came out of nowhere to win the Camera d'Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and I hope I'm not raining on its, well, rain, to say it doesn't completely justify its formlessness. There's a lot of unshaped babble, draggy landscape footage and over-insistent music — lovely in small doses, numbing when it underscores everything.
Hushpuppy's neighbors become a surrogate family, and they're more than a little romanticized, their drunken dysfunction ennobled — as if being below sea level has raised them to a higher spiritual plain.
But that little girl's face holds you. In the hours before the storm will hit, the air is charged, the children running through the dark wood waving sparklers, a last burst of lyricism before the ground beneath them is swept away.
Near the end, Zeitlin pulls an amazing sequence out of his hat. It's set in a brothel, on a rig in the middle of the water that's like an island out of The Odyssey, and the women who inhabit it are, at least for a moment, everything this motherless child needs. It's as if the universe has opened its arms and said, "I know you exist. You are loved." (Recommended)