This review was originally published at Pol Culture.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, the début feature of director Benh Zeitlin, is an exuberant, uncategorizable, and marvelous film. It mixes up magic-realist allegory, slice-of-life parent-child drama, documentary-style local-color social realism, and probably a few other story genres and modes that I’m forgetting. The central character is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl who lives with her father (Dwight Henry) in an isolated Louisiana bayou community. They and their neighbors want nothing to do with the rest of the world. Their only goal is to live and let live, and they fill their days with fishing, scavenging, and carousing. What would look like squalor to most is idyllic for them. But all things come to an end, and their way of life is threatened by a hurricane that floods the area. That threat is deepened by the authorities' insistence that they evacuate and be relocated. Hushpuppy has her own challenges, particularly her tempestuous relationship with her often manic father, and their realization that he is dying. But I’m making the picture sound dreary, and it’s anything but. Zeitlin captures the vigorous, indomitable spirit of the people the film portrays. His ace in the hole is the sometimes fierce, sometimes soulful, and always charming performance by Wallis in the lead. She seems like a force of nature at times, and she commands the screen with an ease almost any adult actor would envy. Wallis leads the viewer gladly through even Zeitlin's most outré passages, including the eerie, dreamlike quest for the girl's long-lost mother, and the goofy poetic fantasy of her belief that ancient boar-monsters are coming to reclaim the bayou. Dwight Henry, who is both savagely intense and deeply moving as her father, gives almost as impressive a performance. The gritty, lyrical cinematography is by Ben Richardson. Zeitlin and Dan Romer are responsible for the rich musical score. The screenplay is credited to Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar. It is based on Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious.