Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin, 93 mins (12A)

3.00

This Sundance-winning fantasy is a cajun-spiced primal stew of a film, until cutesiness creeps in

The esteemed American critic A O Scott, recently reviewing the torridly dreadful Florida-set thriller The Paperboy, used a deliciously apt phrase – he called the film "a hot mess". That's equally applicable to a much better feature set in New Orleans – Beasts of the Southern Wild. The exuberant debut by 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin – top drama winner at this year's Sundance Festival – isn't just a hot mess, it's a cajun-spiced primal stew. Unquestionably bold and original, it's the strangest film we've seen this year – and I only wish I liked it more.

At once rooted in reality and dream, Beasts is a delirious attempt at Louisiana myth-making – indeed, at a sort of neo-prehistoric cinema. The time frame is, apparently, today, and the setting a water-bound territory called the Bathtub, where the poor population (mainly but not exclusively black) live in lean-to shacks and sail ramshackle boats made from old car bodies. The heroine and narrator is a small girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, aged six during the shoot). When I say "narrator", I don't just mean that she's telling a story, but that she's also narrating her worldview – describing and thereby creating the entire universe before our eyes.

Hushpuppy lives with her drunken, agitated father, Wink (Dwight Henry, in civilian life a baker), who mainly nourishes her on whole broiled chickens. Largely left to her own devices, Hushpuppy communes with the livestock (she has a gift for hearing the heartbeats of pigs and fowls), occasionally makes drastic attempts to feed herself (lighting the stove with a flamethrower) and ponders her memories of an absent mother. That lady's mere passing presence would make water spontaneously boil: she's never seen, but is represented as a voice and a comforting waft of 1920s jazz.

Life in the Bathtub seems to consist largely of boozy carousing, firework displays and impromptu seafood feasts, fountains of blood-red crayfish cascading across the screen; they must have had a jolly time making this film, and a smelly one too.

Then the rains come down – leaving us to interpret Beasts as a magical-realist representation of Hurricane Katrina and its effect on a community. Bathtub dwellers are evacuated to a care station, where unthinkably, Hushpuppy is put into a neat blue dress, her hair tied in ribbons. She promptly skips captivity before, in an odd narrative jump, she and other children end up out at sea, visiting the Elysian Fields Floating Catfish Shack – a maritime brothel where, amid more vintage jazz, the little girls find mother surrogates to dance with in a tender, highly coloured idyll.

The film's single strangest element is a marauding herd of apocalyptic beasts called aurochs. In reality, aurochs were cattle, but as summoned up by Hushpuppy's imagination and Zeitlin's effects department, they become a gigantic breed of tusked pot-bellied pig – rampaging Hogzillas. Together with repeated images of crumbling ice cliffs, the aurochs bring the film a bizarre apocalyptic flavour. With Hushpuppy destined to face off against these ferocious yet oddly winsome monsters, Beasts finally suggests a swampland version of Where the Wild Things Are – both the Maurice Sendak book and Spike Jonze's fanciful film adaptation, although Beasts has shades of tweeness that aren't in either.

Co-written by Zeitlin with Lucy Alibar, adapting her own play, Beasts is more generally the product of Court 13, a sort of community arts collective – which is what gives the film its peculiar immediacy. The overall visual energy suggests everyone weighing in for the sheer joy of it, rather than just a professionally executed project: look, for example, at the image of a wrecked house standing in deep water, planks shooting from its roof like spikes. Beasts doesn't entirely convince me either as coherent narrative (not that it matters so much) nor as a quasi-spontaneous imagining of a poetic universe. But as an installation art project on a huge scale, it's pretty much sui generis – an attempt to transform the world into a lawless adventure playground.

Still, some aspects of Beasts are frustratingly gauche, or twee. Quvenzhané Wallis is a bracingly uncute child, stomping around in white wellies with a solemn scowl that suggests she's neither playing nor acting, but just going about her business and the camera had better not get in her way. That she's facially rather inexpressive works to the film's advantage. Yet cutesiness still creeps in via the voiceover, which mixes earnest Malick-style mysticism ("I see that I'm a little piece of a big, big universe and that makes things right") with a knowing attempt to capture a child's artless sense of self ("In a million years, if kids go to school, they'll know that there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub").

The boisterous score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer, a sort of Crescent City revision of Michael Nyman, is typical of the film's tendency to get carried away by its own high spirits. You know the deal: you don't have to be mad, or drunk, or waterlogged to live here, but it helps. Despite its community-project roots, the film still feels awkwardly like a fantasy about blackness and the authenticity of grassroots living (not that it's necessarily relevant, but Zeitlin is white, from New York and a graduate of Wesleyan). Beasts of the Southern Wild is a wonder but it's also an uncomfortable case of nostalgie de la boue, literally – a yearnin' for the bayou mud. It's a hot mess all right, and largely in a good way, but it may be more your bowl of gumbo than mine.

Critic's Choice

It's not all Passport to Pimlico … Dark Ealing is a season at London's BFI Southbank highlighting the more nocturnal side of the time-honoured British studio, with features such as 1947 thriller It Always Rains on Sunday. Liberal Arts is that rare beast: a romcom with brains, starring Elizabeth Olsen and director Josh Radnor.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'