It doesn't happen often here, but it's a heady experience when it does: An unknown Sundance movie that grips you from its very first images, follows through on its promise (and even raises the stakes), then sends you out dazed with other festivalgoers to wonder if you all witnessed the same minor miracle. The movie is "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the director is newcomer Benh Zeitlin, and it's a work of down-home magical realism that, at its best, makes you see with new eyes. The Tweet-worthy thumbnail description (I should know) is that "Beasts" is "Whale Rider" as a post-Katrina folk creation myth, but that does a disservice to Zeitlin's startling vision. The brave young Quvenzhane Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a little girl growing up in a tiny New Orleans community called Bathtub, out beyond the levees and happy to be far from the "dry place." It's a community of functioning dysfunction, blacks and whites living together in drunken ramshackle contentment, and then the hurricane comes to clear out everyone but a few malcontents, clinging to their remaining land like barnacles on an upturned hull.
Zeitlin tells this story with a gently apocalyptic Biblical fervor, and the amazing thing about "Beast of the Southern Wild" is that it plays on two levels simultaneously: the realistic plane where we can always pinpoint where we are in historical space and time; and the arena of folk tale and fable, of archetypes and primal yearnings. The filmmaking seems chaotic but it's only capturing the entropic end of days for these people; Zeitlin's control of cinematography, tone, pacing, and gathering force is complete. Oh, and the soundtrack is perfect: an intertwining mix of Cajun fiddles and brass band strains that send you out on air. One of the most arresting scenes in "Beasts" involves the corpse of an alligator filled with dynamite, a stark poetic image that could stand in for the whole movie.
The movie doesn't have a distributor yet, but it already has ecstatic buzz, and releasing companies are said to be duking it out; expect a sales announcement within a day or two. "Beasts" needs to be handled carefully, since it's the very definition of a specialty film, but there are audiences out there who will understand that this is very special indeed. When I asked an august reviewer her opinion after the screening, she just looked at me with her mouth hanging open, and how about that? -- A film critic lost for words.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Glenn Yoder is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
Swati Sharma is an Arts & Entertainment and Things to Do producer at Boston.com.
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Look for new reviews by Ty Burr and Wesley Morris at the end of each week in multiple formats.