Set in a seedy, swampy Louisiana bayou in an undesignated time period much like today (or post-Katrina), Beast of the Southern Wild is a southern epic about a young six year old named Hushpuppy and her travails through life as her angry father is dying and the land around them is being covered with water. Her matter-of-fact manner and innocent stubbornness play well amongst the backdrop of devastation and despair. Only a child can witness destruction and thinks it's how things are supposed to be. She continues on, with her proverbial wisdom and beyond-her-years knowledge, to conquer everything around her, even if the most trying thing in her life is not letting any tears fall when she's alone with her father, lying on his deathbed. He encourages her to stay strong with tough fatherly advice he usually ends with "man". He wants her to see his fight and take that with her once he's gone. He knows life is all about fighting and he doesn't want her to turn her back or give up like her mother did years before.
Pieced into the narrative perfectly is the story of the beasts, or aurochs, who roamed the land some time ago and were frozen in the ice caps, which were bound to melt one day. As the rains come down and water washes her world away, Hushpuppy comes face to face with the aurochs. It's clever in these sense that it's hard to ignore if the aurochs are meant as figurative characters or legitimate nuisances. However they are intended, it's Hushpuppy's ability to even tame these beasts that set her above the people, adults included, around her.
First time feature director Benh Zeitlin pulls some incredible movie magic here, showing us things we've never seen before. His realistic style brings to the surface an image of the people who may very well be living in similar circumstances, especially where the film is located. The artistry and brains behind some of the film's best devices are what pushes this to the forefront of independent filmmaking. But, beyond his direction and the clever script (adapted from Lucy Alibar's play "Juicy and Delicious") is the performance by six year old Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy. Her pouty faces and stern looks are perfectly fitting for the young Hushpuppy, who is practically raising herself. The mixture of maturity and childlike innocence are what makes this work. Her performance alone is worth seeing the film. It seems crazy to honor a performer so young, but she's deserving. The rest of Zeitlin's cast is stellar, too. It works to the film's advantage that most are local citizens.
While it'll be a tough fight to come out on top at awards time, I think Beasts will have some representation among the lists of nominees.