Film review | Beasts of the Southern Wild – Cajun magic realism casts a potent spell

Beasts of the Southern Wild - Quvenzhaneé Wallis as Hushpuppy & Dwight Henry as Wink

A wondrously weird slice of Cajun magic realism, Beasts of the Southern Wild immerses the viewer in the world of a tenacious six-year-old girl and the spirited community in which she lives.

Erratically raised by a sickly heavy-drinking single father, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) inhabits a ramshackle Louisiana bayou settlement known as the Bathtub, which is cut off from the rest of the world by a levee and constantly under threat of being drowned by rising floodwaters. In the meantime, life in the Bathtub is noisy, chaotic, unrestrained. Hushpuppy’s freedom verges on the surreal. Indeed, social services would have conniptions if they saw her brandishing fizzing firecrackers in both hands, let alone using a blowtorch to light a stove.

Like the hardscrabble folk around her, tiny Hushpuppy is resilient and independent, but mythic Ice-Age beasts called aurochs haunt her imagination and a storm is gathering.

Beasts of the Southern Wild - Quvenzhaneé Wallis as Hushpuppy

Indie director Benh Zeitlin’s remarkable debut film wowed this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the former and the Caméra d’Or at the latter.

You can see why. Beasts of the Southern Wild explodes with energy and colour. The Cajun rock score soars. And the film’s young lead is astonishing. (Most of the cast are non-professionals; the actor who plays Hushpuppy’s father is a baker off-screen).

There’s been a backlash from some critics since Sundance and Cannes, with a number objecting to the film’s supposedly poetic depiction of extreme poverty (see Winter’s Bone for a tougher, more realistic, rigorously unsentimental portrait of American deprivation).

Experience the film through Hushpuppy’s curious six-year-old eyes and it emerges as a potent ecological fable about the perils of global warming, a healing response to the trauma of Hurricane Katrina. Surrender to its spell and this is an intoxicating and exhilarating movie.

In cinemas from Friday 19th October.

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