No film garnered more praise and buzz at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival than "Beasts of the Southern Wild," Benh Zeitlin's expressionistic take on life for New Orleans residents post-Katrina. Manhola Dargis from The New York Times praised it as "one of the best films to play at the festival in two decades," while The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy went so far as to call it "one of the most striking films to ever debut" at Sundance. The festival also fell under the spell of "Beasts" by awarding it with two big prizes: the Cinematography Award and the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic film.
In case all the praise and accolades haven't sold you yet (did we mention it also nabbed two awards at the Cannes Film Festival?), then let us do the work: "Beasts" is a one-of-a-kind experience. Moving, profound, majestic, funny and ethereal, "Beasts" belies its indie roots to deliver an epic tale sure to resonate with audiences young and old. In other words: the hype is more than warranted.
You know you're in for something special from the film's very first scenes. Zeitlin introduces you to his make-believe community of the Bathtub off the coast of southern Louisiana, where six-year-old girl Hushpuppy (remarkable newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), lives with her tough father, Wink (Dwight Henry), on the swampier side of a levee. The world Zeitlin conjures up is remarkably lived in, fascinating and strange. Think of it as the mico-budget antithesis to what James Cameron did in creating Pandora for "Avatar." This is a world to get lost in.
At school, a teacher warns Hushpuppy and her class that "Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled." And come unraveled it does. Far north of the Bathtub, the ice caps come crashing down, giving way to a massive impending storm, and bringing back to life the previously frozen ancient "beasts" of the title. Just to raise the stakes even higher for the pint-sized but extremely self-reliant Hushpuppy, she learns that her father is suffering from a terminal illness. With her world literally coming to an end, Hushpuppy sets out on a journey to reunite with her long lost mother.
If that all sounds remarkably ambitious for a film with a miniscule budget, it is. But somehow (and we're not sure how) Zeitlin pulls it all off with total aplomb. The aforementioned beasts awe with their scale, while the flooded landscapes that populate the film are totally credible.
Given what he managed to do with "Beasts," we can't wait to see what Zeitlin can accomplish with a studio-size budget when the times comes -- and judging by the great word of mouth surrounding his feature film debut, that time will no doubt be sooner than later. But before that time comes, we urge you to see "Beasts." We have a feeling this is the first of many great things to come from Zeitlin, a Terrence Malick in the making if there ever was one.