If you like the style of director Harmony Korine, you’ll get a kick out of Benh Zeitlin's feature debut - a post-Katrina oddity.
Zeitlin doesn't tell us where the story is set and leaves it to the audience to piece together the information. With eight-year-old Hushpuppy (Wallis) living in one tree shack and her father, Wink (Henry), living in what looks like a trailer that's stuck in a tree, one would be forgiven for thinking that Beasts takes place in a fantasy world. However Hushpuppy and Wink are part of a small community that live in 'the bathtub' and treat the people of the nearby industrialised zone with suspicion. As Zeitlin drops more and more hints, we realise we’re in a New Orleans that's about to feel the brunt of Hurricane Katrina. Refusing to obey orders to evacuate their homes, Hushpuppy, Wink and others hold fast in the hope of riding out the hurricane's fury.
Seen through the eyes of the young Hushpuppy, Beasts Of The Southern Wild has a skewed and bizarre outlook at things. She's a little bit strange - she can hear animals' heartbeats and talks to her dead mother, whom she imagines talking back to her - and her musings, although odd, are fun and endearing. She also has a fear of (metaphorical) giant beasts that are migrating south from the icebergs and eating all in sight. With the movie’s obvious lack of budget all we get here is what looks like boars with horns tied on.
Hushpuppy’s relationship with her father is hard to pin down. He's a deadbeat - letting his young daughter fend for herself - but he also teaches her basic survival tips; knowing he's dying from heart disease, he takes her out in his 'boat' (more of a makeshift truck trailer with tyres tied to the side) and shows her how to catch fish. Later, he bawls at her to toughen up when she succumbs to tears. In his own harsh way he's preparing her to be on her own and that relationship gives up some pretty touching scenes.
Beasts seems to be a celebration of a simple life - Wink is aghast to learn that the folk who live among the factories 'got their fish stuck in plastic wrappers' - but no matter how hard he sells it (the sense of community, that these people live and die for each other) life in the bathtub isn't one to relish.
While touching, the barely there plotting and the oddball characters don't make for coherent storytelling.