One of the most original and hotly debated films of the past year, the writer-director Benh Zeitlin's dazzling debut feature picked up dozens of festival prizes and four Oscar nominations, including one for the youngest-ever Best Actress contender. Made for less than US$2 million (Dh7.3m) with a largely non-professional cast, Beasts of the Southern Wild became a cultural phenomenon in the US. Oprah Winfrey dedicated a television special to the film. President Obama called it "spectacular". Most critics loved it, though a few dissenters staged an angry backlash.
Much of the film's appeal rests squarely on the young shoulders of Quvenzhané Wallis, who was just 5 when she landed the lead role ahead of nearly 4,000 other candidates. Wallis plays Hushpuppy, an only child living with her sick father Wink (Dwight Henry) in The Bathtub, a remote and impoverished shanty town in the waterlogged bayous of Louisiana in America's Deep South. This magical island of outsiders floats apart from mainstream society on the ocean side of a fortress-like levee, but their future is under existential threat from global warming, rising tides and increasingly catastrophic storms.
Hushpuppy's hypnotic voice-over carries the story with a poetic blend of childlike wonder and ancient wisdom. The beasts of the title are her fantasy version of aurochs, mammoth-like monsters that she fears will run rampant when the polar ice caps melt. Wallis is a natural, setting the screen alight simply by being herself. It is difficult to imagine Zeitlin's ambitiously weird hybrid of family drama and post-apocalyptic thriller hanging together without Wallis and her effortlessly natural star quality.
Like most debut features, Beasts of the Southern Wild is not perfect. Expanded from the film's co-writer Lucy Alibar's one-act play Juicy and Delicious, the plot rambles in places while the layers of meaning are confusing. Is this a hurricane allegory? An ecological disaster movie? A child's visionary dream? A critique of poverty and racism in contemporary America? All of the above, arguably, though the latter point inevitably proved the most controversial in the US, with commentators across the political spectrum lambasting the film for its folksy and patronising representation of dirt-poor, mostly black characters.
It's a valid criticism, but applying such overly literal interpretation to a magical-realist fairy tale seems a little unfair and perhaps misses the point. Beasts of the Southern Wild may contain muddled messages, but it is still a strikingly original feat of imagination, a stirring celebration of the human spirit and a ravishing sensual experience. For once, you really can believe the hype.