First-time director Benh Zeitlin took more risks than an artist rightly should in bringing "Beasts of the Southern Wild" to life.
Zeitlin's film showcases a physically abusive father meant to gain our sympathies, a gaggle of stubborn storm survivors who ignore every safety precaution possible and two neophyte actors in the main roles.
"Beasts" still snagged serious love from both the Sundance Film Festival crowd as well as most movie critics, and deservedly so. The film, out this week on home video, is a fiercely original tale that nonetheless achieves every lofty goal it sets for itself.
Newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a young girl living with her dad named Wink (Dwight Henry) on a pin-drop island on the Mississippi Delta. Their home consists of stuff you wouldn't think worthy of a garage sale rack, their existence as crude as one could imagine in our modern age.
Then, a storm strikes, and father and daughter's lifestyle is reduced even further as the waters perilously rise. They aren't alone, as they keep company with several neighbors who also refused to flee their turf as the weather warnings hit alarming levels.
Survival is the prime motivator now, not only from the storm's ravaging effects but Wink's mysterious medical condition. Hushpuppy is forced to confront issues no irrepressible girl should ever have to endure.
"Beasts" isn't about Hurricane Katrina even if the similarities are striking. Zeitlin's film lacks overt political slogans, although it captures the character and moxie of the region's residents in a way that pays them tribute while making us scratch their heads at their priorities.
Wink's bond with Hushpuppy is both beautiful and dangerous. He swats her one moment and then gathers her up in his arms the next, almost daring the audience to judge him.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" even weaves in fantasy creatures, looming large over Hushpuppy's rushed ascension toward adulthood. Once again, Zeitlin's instincts are sound, something that gives his debut feature one more magical element to behold.
The DVD includes a soulful "making of" featurette revealing the homespun nature of the film crew as well as how the production found its stars. Henry ran a bakery across the street from the crew's ramshackle office and tried out for Wink after Zeitlin's team plastered audition flyers around town. As for young Wallis, a quick peek at an early audition showed just why she was perfect to play Hushpuppy.