Beasts of the Southern Wild, a deliciously dreamy tale about a fictional Bayou community in the backwaters of Louisiana, does not so much jump off the screen as float effortlessly off it.
Made with two leads who had never acted before (it was recently denied eligibility for Screen Actors Guild Awards for this reason), it charts the fall-out from a Hurricane Katrina-like disaster through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a feisty yet fragile six-year old (played by the astoundingly good newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) as she rubs along with her hot-tempered, alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry).
This is a film that defies any attempt at logical criticism, more like a hypnotic poem or song than a film with a sensical plot.
Here is what we know for sure: Hushpuppy has lived alone with her father since her mother "swam away" many years before. We know too, from her teacher and from Hushpuppy's own musings, that one day the icecaps will melt, a flood will come and "The Bathtub", as the local community call their side of the levee, will be "just a whole bunch 'o' water". And we know that Wink is ill, seriously ill, disappearing for days on end and returning in hospital garb with a dark, ominous colour creeping through his veins and a fearful temper.
Terrified of leaving Hushpuppy alone, Wink is trying to teach her to survive without him. But she is a tragicomic caricature of an adult. She cooks for herself but uses a blowtorch to light the stove. She throws her weight around, puffing up her chest exclaiming "I'm the man!" and yelling at her father but is easily scared.
Hushpuppy is grounded in reality - she lives off the land and water around her - but it is her imagination that sets her free. She chatters away to her absent mother, and dreams vividly of aurochs, a now extinct form of cattle, except that in her mind they look more like mythological beasts.
There is humour, too, amidst the madness. When the flood finally comes and father and daughter sail through the water of what remains looking for food, a moment where the resilient youngster punches a fish in the face is unexpected to say the least.
Is Beasts this year's The Artist? Perhaps not - it is probably too bizarre to appeal to mainstream audiences and there may still be some who find its environmental undertone off-putting. But, featuring phenomenal performances and a rare, beautiful glimpse at a vanishing world, it shares with The Artist that sense of the magic of cinema, an insistence that, on screen, wondrous things can be born from the simplest ideas.
Public screenings, 12, 13, 14 October, www.bfi.org.uk/lff
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