Call it the little film that might. Helmed by first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin, starring a cast of Louisiana locals making (in most cases) their film debuts, and led by a 6-year-old unknown child actor, the whimsical and harrowing indie Beasts of the Southern Wild took Sundance by storm, won the Un Certain Regard prize for new filmmakers at Cannes, and has been championed wildly by critics. Now, opening in limited release, Beasts stars Quvenzhané Wallis (now 9 years old) as Hushpuppy, a Southern girl whose dying father takes the lead in rebuilding their bayou neighborhood after a hurricane strikes and giant prehistoric animals begin attacking. The rousing survival tale is already inspiring Oscar talk. Is it the must-see indie film of the year?
It's as good as you've heard: The film is "a blast of sheer, improbable joy, a boisterous, thrilling action movie," says A.O. Scott at The New York Times. Pint-sized Quvenzhané Wallis commands the screen "with a charismatic poise that might make grown-up movie stars weep in envy," trumping The Hunger Games' Katniss and Brave's Princess Merida as the heroine of the year. "If, as the Fourth of July approaches, you find yourself craving an antidote to anger and cynicism, a bracing reminder of the meaning of independence, and a helping of homegrown art to go with your hamburgers and watermelon," Beasts will fit the bill.
"She's the man of this swamp"
Though perhaps too sentimental: Beasts of the Southern Wild is a "zealous gumbo of regionalism, magical realist, post-Katrina allegory, myth, and ecological parable," says Melissa Anderson at The Village Voice. The natural and emotional disasters Hushpuppy endures are positively heartbreaking, particularly as played by young Wallis, who is her own force of nature on screen. But her overly precocious voice-overs, filled with implausibly sage maxims, "can't avoid falling into slick sentimentality."
"Quvenzhané Wallis endures in Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Prepare for inevitable backlash: The breathless hype accompanying the film could kill it, says Sasha Stone at Awards Daily. It's currently perched precariously atop a tower of implausible expectations, "the first film in a long while that is getting the kinds of [rave] reviews we hardly ever see." Naysayers are inevitable: Expect criticism from those who find the lead too wise-beyond-her-years, the film too ugly and depressing. "It's not going to be fun, watching the backlash on this one."
"Too cool for school: Waiting out the fear of hype as Beasts of the Southern Wild prepares to open"
Consensus: Beasts of the Southern Wild is an extraordinary film featuring a tour de force performance from newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. Don't let the reactionary tug-of-war about its value dissuade you from seeing it.