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
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution