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★★★★ @Rio Cinema, Dalston

Beasts of the Southern Wild is an evocative and imaginative directorial debut from Benh Zeitlin. It depicts a semi-fictional, post-Katrina community, living geographically and financially on the edge of society, and combines it with fantastical imagery, seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl.

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is the six-year-old protagonist who lives with her unpredictable father, Wink, in The Bathtub, a multi-ethnic Bayou community beyond a levy in the Mississippi delta. As the ice caps melt and the heavens open, Hushpuppy has to deal with a semi-biblical succession of floods, disease and death, as well as the ailing health of her father.

At the centre of the action is Wallis, the lead actress who was cast in the role at the age of five, and who puts in an impressive, natural performance. The semi-professional supporting cast, including father Dwight Henry, a baker in real life, are also utterly convincing.  Zeitlin’s focus on the environment, the elements and the interconnectedness of life seems inspired by Terence Malick, but it’s the inclusion of mythical creatures called Aurochs that gives the film its distinctive flavour, recalling Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

It is here that Beasts of the Southern Wild veers slightly into sentimentalism, with fantasy where there could have been a social or political comment on the precarious position of post-Katrina Bayou communities (the only point made is that they don’t want government ‘aid’ that removes them from their homes). But this is a legitimate decision, and to my mind the film is the better for it: Beasts is Hushpuppy’s story, a fantastical, wild and imaginative personal journey  – not a documentary on post-Katrina America.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is ambitious, moving and unlike anything else that you’ll see this year. It may give in slightly to sentimentalism in the third act, but its balance in combining social realism with mythical fantasy results in a charming and uplifting film.

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