Beasts of the Southern Wilds is the final piece of evidence that I needed to prove that this year is going to be an excellent year for movies. How else could a July release contain a uniquely tragic heroes journey, one of the best examples of 'real world' world building I've seen, a pair of earth shattering performances by first time actors, quietly brilliant messages on Global Warming and humanities place in the universe and STILL not be the best movie I've seen all year (for those of you keeping track at home: Moonrise Kingdom still has first place).
The story is concerned with Hushpuppy, a 6 year girl living in a ridiculously poor slum outside New Orleans called the Bathtub with her borderline abusive father Wink who is suffering from an unspecified disease. The people in it live a primitive, but content, life provided that the water level holds steady. No prizes for guessing that a disaster happens (probably Hurricane Katrina, but it's never specified) and the Bathtub is flooded. The disaster, caused by an imbalance (Global Warming, but again never specified), also unfreezes a group of prehistoric aurochs (here imagined as Godzilla scale pigs with horns).
The Bathtub is, as I said, an astounding feat of world building. The movie takes great pains to establish the place, it's inhabitants and how they survive. The grime and grit of the hand-to-mouth existence of the Bathtub contrasts with what little we see of the outside world that when we finally get all the way out of the bathtub towards the end of the 2nd act, it's a shock to both us and the characters.
What you've heard about the acting is true, though I feel the need to be a little more specific. First time actress Quvenzhané Wallis is indeed one of the best actress of her age I've ever seen (between this and Moonrise Kingdom it's also a good year for pre-teen first time actors). She is playing a character tough and stoic enough at 6 to make Katniss from The Hunger Games tremble and she manages to get across an incredible amount of information with minor shifts in body posture and facial expression. Another newcomer, Dwight Henry, gets the slightly more thankless task of playing the oft-times abusive father, but the character manages to avoid falling into the trap of making him a one dimensional monster. He is so adamant that his daughter be ready to survive when he's gone, and thus he alternates between being supportive and abusive, to toughen her up and make her sure of herself. It's a difficult acting job to be sure and he rises to the task admirably.
The direction is extremely unique, often focusing on odd things and shifting back and forth between the aurochs and Hushpuppy. If it didn't maintain such a consistency of tone and if the journey of the aurochs wasn't so clearly metaphorically tied in with Hushpuppy's heroes journey, then it might come across as a flaw, but it works, alarmingly well.
The script is the closest thing the movie has to a flaw, as the dialogue can be rather intently blunt, especially when it comes to Hushpuppy's narration. But as the film progresses and we sink deeper into the world of the Bathtub and we get more used to the characters who inhabit it, the blunt dialogue becomes another level of world building: It isn't bad screenplay writing, it's EXCELLENT screenplay writing, as the blunt dialogue is just how the people of the Bathtub talk.
Every critic in the world is already singing this movie's praises, so let me join them: Beasts of the Southern Wilds is easily on the best films to come out all year and you owe it to yourself to see it. Humanity, you already turned Adam Sandler's latest into a flop and Prometheus, Cabin in the Woods and Moonrise Kingdom into surprise hits, so let's see if we can keep this trend going for this one. Or, to put it more bluntly: GO. SEE. THIS. MOVIE!
Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he's still not sure if the aurochs are real or not.