When it first opens, it’s hard to be entirely sure just what Beasts of the Southern Wild is. The setting would be familiar to anyone who saw images of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – or indeed, even now seven years on. Combine this with the verité style camera work, and naturalistic performances from the cast of first-time actors, and it’s easy to assume this is a documentary, rather than a work of fiction; at least until the opening credits. It’s a sneaky bit of sleight of hand, but it’s also highly effective, leaving the audience invested in this off-beat sci-fi flick in a way that, if it were played straight, it’s unlikely they would have otherwise been.
The cast are a real surprise here. Ordinarily using non-actors results in an uncomfortable mix of stilted awkwardness, with overacting – often in the same performance, but here it works fantastically. Particularly so in the case of the film’s leads, Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis, who are both believable and compelling as the put upon father, unable to cope with his responsibilities, and his remarkably self-sufficient young daughter. Indeed, Wallis is no less than astonishing in the role of Hush Puppy, becoming the newest member of the elite group of child actors who manage to not seem flat, while also not being annoying or creepy.
The real triumph, however is the world the film builds – like ours, but thrown slightly off-kilter. The Bathtub is a libertarian paradise, while the people behind the levees well meaning, but busy-body-ish liberals. The allegories are obvious, and work on multiple levels, allowing viewers to read in their own political leanings, but it’s not entirely clear that they’re all intentional, or the result of a happy coincidence. The magical realism and consequent logic jumps may jar are a matter of taste – undoubtedly some will find them a source of irritation, but they’re likely to appeal to many, particularly as they lend the film a Studio Ghibli-esque sensibility.
Ultimately though, Beasts of the Southern Wild works on a much more visceral level than any amount of analysis can account for. Consequently, it’s something of a rarity – a film that made me want to immediately go back in and watch it again. Like a Hayao Miyazaki take on When the Levees Broke, it blends compelling fantasy with a clear political message to create something that transcends both. Fantastic, fantastical and one of the best sci-fi films of the last decade.