PARK CITY - It's rare that a first-time feature filmmaker delivers something truly memorable with their debut - even at a festival such as Sundance - but Benh Zeitlin has done just that with "Beasts of the Southern Wild" which premiered Friday on the first full day of the festival.
Set in the Louisiana delta , the film is shown through the eyes of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl living with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a commune like community simply known as the Tub. The residents of the area have cobbled junk and wood to make a small village where everyone lives off the gulf and their own livestock. There is electricity, but not much else. It's an area perfect for Wink, a man whose demons and issues with authority have made it impossible for him to survive in the traditional "real" world. Hushpuppy spends her days bonding with nature and learning about what's beyond the levies and smokestacks that border the Tub from a pseudo witch doctor/gypsy woman. Her stories tell of ancient beasts who hunted cave men, but were destroyed in the Ice Age. The film uses a motif of these ancient beasts awakening from hibernation in parallel to Hushpuppy's journey to become the "king" of the Tub. In many hands this concept would have failed miserably (especially for such a low-budget indie), but Zeitlin and his crew make it work.
Zeitlin has a magnificent eye as a director and his use of music to build emotion and anticipation throughout the picture is exemplary (it doesn't hurt that he co-wrote the score with Dan Romer). In particular, the film's introduction to the joy of living in the Tub and Hushpuppy's not-unexpected triumph recall the artistic heights of Terrence Malick (really). Granted, The world Zeitlin has created isn't always believable, but he's assisted in suspending the audience's disbelief by his non-professional actors who are simply remarkable at times. Zeitlin only shows his learning curve as a first time director with the picture's weak overall storyline (Lucy Alibar co-wrote the screenplay). Granted, the scope and remarkable spectacle of the film cover up much of the films flaws, but "Beasts" should not feel longer than the 83 minutes it is.
It's unclear whether Wallis will ever act professionally again, but she's incredibly impressive conveying Hushpuppy's arc under Zeitlin's direction. Compared to Thomas Horn's celebrated turn in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" or Asa Butterfield in "Hugo," Wallis shows more natural flair than many of her peers. It's rare to find young actors with this much natural charisma and let's hope she decides to act onscreen again.
Whether "Beasts" finds major distribution remains to be seen. Even with relative critical acclaim the unconventional drama will be a hard sell to audiences. You could see a Fox Searchlight or Focus Features picking it up a the right price because they are interested in working with Zeitlin down the road, but an IFC Films, Magnolia or, possibly the best solution, Oscilloscope Films are the more likely suitors.
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