This year at Sundance, there was one film that seemed to blow everyone away: the first feature from director Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild. If there’s a stereotype about the films that do well at the festival, it’s that they’re serious-minded, fairly realistic, talky independents, often with a strong dark streak. Beasts is something else entirely: a film of rare ambition for a first feature, but also—even more rare—one that actually succeeds in manifesting the skill necessary to realize its outsize ambitions. This is the best first feature you’re likely to have seen from any filmmaker in a long, long time.
The film takes place in a fictional coastal Louisiana island known by its impoverished local residents as “the Bathtub,” a low-lying spot on the wrong side of protective levies should a storm come through. Such a storm does, and leaves the Bathtub largely submerged, its residents forced to fend for themselves. The film concentrates on one particular resident: a little girl who goes by the name “Hushpuppy” (Quvenzhané Wallis) who’s raised by a single father with mounting health problems.
If that sounds like a film with the makings of a straight Katrina allegory or a political statement on the state of the coastal communities of Louisiana, it’s neither of those things. Zeitlin shoots the film from the perspective of Hushpuppy, and the result is a film that taps the waking-dream imagination of childhood, as she combines elements of the world around her to develop a magically realistic world of fantasy that both reflects and distracts from her more earthly problems. Ebullient and brimming over with imagination, this is easily one of the year’s best and one of the most unapologetically (and earnedly) joyful films you’ll see this year.
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