“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the feature debut of director Benh Zeitlin, was the darling of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, has already landed on several critics’ best-of-the-year lists and seems well on its way to being the Cinderella of next year’s Oscar ball.
And why not? This alternately scrappy and uplifting story of a young Louisiana girl on a fearless journey to save herself and preserve her fragile bayou community possesses all the hallmarks of an art film that also happens to be a rousing crowd-pleaser: Lush, imaginative visuals, a fable-like story reminiscent of great literature and one of the most memorable protagonists — and debut performances — to grace the big screen in a long time.
Indeed, as the invincible, pint-size heroine named Hushpuppy, newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis just may be the best reason to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” As the feral wild child at the story’s center, the 8-year-old actress delivers a watchful but ferociously brave performance, channeling a child’s apocalyptic sense of anxiety to become a determined force of resilience and communal consciousness. Her screen presence — so charismatic, so uncommonly assured — comes close to transcending a movie that, despite being steeped in good intentions and earnest aspirations, often winds up treating her like one of the untamed creatures of its title.