DVD Release Date: December 4, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: June 27, 2012
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 91 min.
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly

“I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.”

Gritty Realism is nothing new in movies, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything that could be described as Gritty Surrealism—until now. The jarring rawness of recent neo-realistic works is so seamlessly, even organically, married to a level of visual and philosophical poetry that it creates, well, if not an entirely new cinematic language then at least a new accent of stylistic multi-aestheticism the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

Director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature is nothing short of stunning, and while his cinematic inspirations are easy to spot (from Terrence Malick’s elegiac tone to the dreamlike visions of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman) his eye is no less distinct. Beasts of the Southern Wild boasts a major new voice in American cinema, one that holds as much promise as any debut in memory.

Set in the swampy Louisiana delta, it’s the story of a resilient 6-year-old African-American girl named Hushpuppy and her violent-but-sick father Wink. They live out in the trees of the marshland, in shacks constructed of old trailers, vehicles, and patchwork junk. It’s a place with no address, in a community called The Bathtub (one built from rubbish and squalor); a district so far out on the margins its existence is not recognized by society. It truly is The Southern Wild. And when a hurricane hits, beasts both human and animal are driven from their habitats in a desperate fight for survival.

“Sometimes you can break something so bad that it can’t get put back together.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild is an intimate story of extreme poverty that becomes epic. While the narrative centers around the tumultuous but loving relationship between Hushpuppy and her father, there’s also a much broader vision unfolding—visually, narratively, thematically—that ponders the balance of nature in both its awesome strength and tenuous fragility, seeing that tension depicted on a grand scale, and the courage it takes to face a broken and brutal world.

It’s a world we see solely from Hushpuppy’s perspective, both in how we receive the narrative and perceive events. We don’t know what happened to her mother, we just know she’s not there. We don’t know what Wink is slowly dying from but simply that he is. And we don’t know if the hurricane is actually Katrina but it might as well be. Specified details are unimportant because the core dynamics speak to more universal things about the human condition and life as we know it.

Hushpuppy largely fends for herself. She’s tough but in a very matter-of-fact way, maintaining a purity in spite of circumstances. We hear her thoughts, and they’re lyrical. It’s through those thoughts that Zeitlin speaks his own mind and constructs metaphors—about the environment, the destructive cycles of nature (both man-made and naturally occurring), how we cope with destruction and death both individually and communally, and how external and internal beauty can be found in the midst of it all (even if only in fleeting yet substantial moments).

“Everybody loses the thing that made them.”