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“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is beautifully shot and engages us quickly. The film tells the story of what one might call “American backwoods bayou folk”, living in poverty that rivals parts of Africa.  But Director Benh Zeitlin’s tale focuses less on economics and much more on character. And somehow cinematographer Amy Vincent is able to find gorgeous light in the most unexpected landscape.

The protagonist is a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her father in what is called The Bathtub, a swamp that is soon to be covered with water from an impending storm and broken levee. All Bathtub residents are proud of their home and band together to protect it.

Just when you’re sure you’re watching a documentary, the story makes a magical left turn. The local shaman portends the legend of ancient beasts who will come back to take the world when the polar ice cap melts and water covers The Bathtub. The art of this film is how it interplays reality with fantasy, steers us through emotional scenes, and then comes through with a happy ending.

And then there’s the little girl, played by Quvenzhané Wallis. Mr. Zeitlin captures her stubborn pout and confidence.  The last time a feisty young girl captured the attention of the Academy Award voters, Tatum O’Neal won the Oscar for  “Paper Moon.” Ms. Wallis has the fire that makes us want to follow her oversized and muddy white rubber boots through all of the layers of this inspired story. Her cries for her Mama are heartbreaking, and her determined, strident walk creates a real presence on screen. She narrates much of the film and we believe her when she says, “the universe depends on everything fitting just right.”  Out of the mouth of babes.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is one of those films you want ponder, and roll the story around in your mind. “Beasts” delivers believable magic.

Watch trailer below.