Gritty and surreal, 'Beasts' is a work of wonder

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In director and co-screenwriter Benh Zeit- lin’s full-length feature debut “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” pint-sized philosopher Hush- puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is fascinated with heartbeats and the way pieces of the world fit together to make it whole. But in the days leading up to and following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in her NoLa neighborhood known as The Bathtub, she has other things on her mind.

Hushpuppy lives with her ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a trailer and tree house following the departure of Hushpup- py’s mother.They get around on water in the back half of a pick-up truck that’s been con- verted into a boat. Hushpuppy goes to The Bathtub equivalent of a school, run by Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), when she’s not exploring (or destroying) her surroundings.

In a narrative monologue, Hushpuppy shares what she knows about the water, the giant warthog-like pre-historic beast known as the aurochs, her missing mother, the fabric of the universe, survival and father/daughter relationships. She may only be six years old, but she speaks with the wisdom of the ages.

With the exception of Wes Anderson’s equally quirky “Moonrise Kingdom,” there is no other movie currently in theaters that achieves this level of wide-eyed wonder and woe. Alternating between gritty and sur- real scenarios, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” turns the tragedy of Katrina into a fireworks- fueled fairy tale and a lesson in ecology. As Hushpuppy, young actress Wallis makes an enduring impression, leaving audiences to look forward to what will come next for her.

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