There are films that work hard to play on your emotions and then there are films that seem to let everything fall into place naturally. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those films that seem to do both simultaneously. Yes, the film can be rather contrived at times, but that never stops it from feeling quite sincere in that same said contrivance. Yes, I know this sounds more than a bit weird (and possibly quite implausible), but don't let that fool you, for first time feature writer/director Benh Zeitlin's Beasts is certainly an enigma of a film. Perhaps it isn't the proverbial riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside that enigma, that a film like last year's The Tree of Life, or even Blue Valentine - a pair of recent films that share a strange, certain kindred spirit, if not in narrative then at least in spirituality, with Beasts - but it is definitely a film that runs the gamut of emotions from the legitimate to the manipulated, and in mixing these two types of storytelling - the broad and the mindful - the film actually manages to work surprisingly well. I would not call the film a groundbreaking creature, or beast if you will, like it is being marketed as, but the film does indeed work surprisingly well.
And the thing that empowers this film the most, and gives it the emotional center it has in spades, is the wonderful performance of a wonderful six-year-old newcomer by the wonderful name of Quvenzhané Wallis (pronounced Kwa-VAHN-Je-Nay). Lying about her age when answering the audition notice for six to nine year olds, Miss Wallis, nicknamed Nazie, must have assuredly blown them away, much like she does to those watching her performance on the big screen. To say this little girl with the giant voice, is a force of nature, may sound a bit cliché on my part, but in this particular case, it is more than true. Wallis plays a girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her daddy in the flooded-out Bayou region known as The Bathtub. Left alone to fend for themselves, this fictional community, based on many of those who were forced out of their homes after Katrina devastated the area, can also be looked upon as being a kindred spirit to the backwoods Appalachian folks of 2010's Winter's Bone - though to a much lesser degree of twisted evil found in that film. And much like Jennifer Lawrence's suffering character in that film, Wallis is the guiding force through the hell on Earth that is her experience.
Zeitlin's film plays out like a mini Tree of Life, at least in style if not subject or scope (not to mention never even breaching the level of cinema chutzpah in the Malick film), and it is little Nazie that is at the center of of such a zeitgeist, such a southern wild if you will. Even in those moments that seem a bit contrite - a fault that would be quite hard to overcome considering the story being told, and the inherent preachiness of such a subject - it is the performance of Nazie that pulls the film back up and into a better realm of cinema. As I said at the outset, Beasts of the Southern Wild may not be the all powerful creature it is being advertised as, but with the help of little Quvenzhané Wallis (could she sneak in as the, by far, youngest Best Actress nominee come Oscar time?) the film is certainly one of the brighter spots of this year's American cinema output - and very possibly the best first feature of the year.