Every year Sundance fascinates festival goers with a drama that introduces audiences to a hidden corner of America. Last year it was On the Ice; the previous year, Winters Bone. That honor this year belongs to Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild. The fascinating corner is the land at the southern edge of the Mississippi Delta, just outside the levees. Zeitlin refers to this world as 'The Bathtub' and his story is a magical tale of the people who cling to their home come hell and high water.
Six year-old Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in separate shacks propped up on top of steel drums on top of whatever other scrap metal Wink has foraged. They spend their days trawling for catfish in a boat fashioned from a pickup truck bed. Wink also spends a lot of time drinking, as do most residents of the Bathtub, a rowdy community of a few dozen who claim the honor of celebrating the most holidays in the nation. These people are militantly loyal to their homes, but when the biggest storm of the century bears down on their fragile hamlet, their mettle will be tested, and those who stay will have an enormous task to survive.
The performance at the center of this wonderful film is tour de force turn by young Quvenzhané Wallis. Her journey is ours and there is never a moment when this girl, only seven at the time of filming, isn't fully committed to her role. Dwight Henry, as the paternal Wink, is just as impressive. Every one of the actors in the film is non professional (Henry owns a bakery in New Orleans) and the work that Zeitlin must have done to get them ready for these dramatic parts is mind boggling. What is clear is that Zeitlin has an incredible eye for talent. Never a frame crosses the screen that betrays any lack of training.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those films that is a challenge to discuss because it is so rewarding to experience with fresh eyes. Zeitlin has no doubt captured lightning in a bottle with his whimsical and heartfelt story about a place that feels like it's on the edge of the world. This is this kind of fresh vision that rekindles one's passion for independent cinema. The Bathtub creates the perfect setting for this exploration of an unknown world, but the sincere story of love between a parent and child is universal.