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Beasts of the Southern Wild blends magic, realism

Gregg Reese | 8/1/2012, 5 p.m.

The great cinematographer Néstor Almendros once noted the advantages filmmakers from different locales bring to a given subject. "A foreigner has a fresh eye to look," said the Oscar-winning Spanish native who photographed such pictures as "Days of Heaven," "Kramer vs. Kramer," and "Sophie's Choice." "Maybe he sees better, what is interesting."

This may help explain the stunning visuals that make up "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the critical and film festival sensation now in limited release throughout Los Angeles County. Queens, N.Y., native and first-time director Benh Zeitlin, along with his director of photography, United Kingdom expatriate Ben Richardson, have crafted a surreal, Louisiana bayou deluge-inspired-environ to rival any that have been presented in older, straightforward, sci-fi based cinematic romps like "Sphere" (1998), "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (1961), or "Waterworld" (1995).

Set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the saga of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old waif who provides the voice-over narration, and her father Wink (Dwight Henry), a cantankerous eccentric in ill health, as they struggle to survive in a primitive wilderness.

They are part of a ramshackle, interracial community in Louisiana's southern delta called "the Bath Tube." Immensely proud of their way of life, they are committed to the mantra of rugged individualism, and resist any efforts of intrusion by outside civilization. Early in the film, Wink points out the specter of distillation towers at an oil refinery looming in the distance.

"Ain't that ugly over there?" he asks his daughter. "We got the prettiest place on earth."

Hushpuppy's and the Bath Tube's world is a hodgepodge of dilapidated shacks and trailer homes linked together by a sense of community and the ability to subsist on the remnants of society. Wink teaches his daughter to catch fish with her hands from a raft fashioned from the bed of a pickup truck.

Simultaneously original and unorthodox, the film nonetheless builds on the traditions of "magic realism," a fictional realm in which extraordinary elements take place within a seemingly rational scenario. The "Southern Gothic" genre is another influence. This is an atmospheric regional convention whose characters are typically confronted by the poverty, racism, violence and other sinister events endemic to that part of the country.

These stories are typically inhabited by an innocent (Wallis) making her way in the world, and an off-kilter or flawed character (Henry), who, in this case is hell-bent on transcending his failings to ensure that his child will be able to cope in a hostile world after he is gone.

Amid the very real, life-threatening milieu poised to consume her, Hushpuppy's vivid imagination constructs a fantasy world in which she can communicate with the animals of her Delta home along with the mythical pig-like monsters (which give the film its title) unleashed by the melting glaciers that contribute to the floodwaters she must contend with. To depict this blend of "heightened reality," Zeitlin combined Richardson's hand-held cinematography with stock footage of actual glaciers. Along with the subtext of parent-child relationship, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" covers the issues of global warming, man against nature, marginalized subcultures adapting to change, the pressures of society, and the rite of passage.

With the Academy Award ceremonies more than six months away, Oscar buzz is already circulating around "Beasts," and especially it's charismatic, precocious star and focal point, Wallis, who reportedly beat out some 3,500 children for the pivotal role of Hushpuppy. The do-it-yourself ethic of the Bath Tube residents depicted in the narrative segued into the production of the film as well, with most of its crew being nonprofessional. Henry, who portrayed the father, is a baker who made Zeitlin's acquaintance when the latter frequented his pastry shop in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans' Mid-City District.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the sort of film normally marketed to the "art house" film-going audience, and yet the poignant storytelling and innate filmmaking talents of its creators make it a welcome departure from the slick manufactured gloss of the Hollywood industry and an accessible alternative for mainstream moviegoers.