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'Beasts of the Southern Wild' review: Remarkable performances from non-professionals anchor this strange marvel

***1/2 (out of four)

A young boy runs down the road, ringing a bell. “The storm is coming!” he shouts.

This adolescent Paul Revere in jeans does not foretell the global end of days but something more real and localized. The southern Delta-set “Beasts of the Southern Wild” never mentions Hurricane Katrina by name because its characters possess no contact with the outside world that names the storm. This event may just be one of many meteorological attacks that can happen at any time. This small society, dubbed the “Bathtub,” exists on a different plane of priority and survival where 6-year-old Hushpuppy (terrific newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) knows that if her single daddy Wink (Dwight Henry) leaves or dies, she won’t just be without guidance--she’ll have to eat her pets.

The Sundance- and Cannes-winning feature debut from director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin offers an unusual blend of stark realism and carefully framed cinematic poetry. He bridges the divide between the low-to-the-ground harsh truths of documentary-style movies like “Ballast” and the lovely grace of “The Tree of Life.” That elevates the movie on a technical level but sometimes pulls you out of what registers as a devastatingly immersive experience, especially when Hushpuppy and Wink hole up and brave weather that sounds like it will blow down the theater. Similarly, Hushpuppy’s sporadic voiceover alternately reflects a haunting document of a young girl’s perspective and a repetitive reliance on too-direct statements like, “Sometimes you can break something so bad that it can’t get put back together.”

Like Jennifer Lawrence’s character teaching her siblings to skin a squirrel in “Winter’s Bone,” much of “Beasts” focuses on the increasingly ill Wink making sure that Hushpuppy can fend for herself. Not many people, much less 6-year-old girls, learn first-hand how to punch a fish in the face after yanking it out of the water with their hands. But that’s where they’re at and they don’t lament their position. In largely uplifting celebrations, the people of “Beasts” comment on the confined fear of those on the other side of the levees without envy. If anything, Wink defiantly refuses to succumb to his conditions while folks who may as well be on the other side of the world go grocery shopping.

Zeitlin captures a dreamlike feel by presenting prehistoric, warthog-like creatures called aurochs that only look fake when in the presence of a person. In a film that repeatedly comments on the universe needing everything to fit into place, the sad-yet-magical “Beasts” speaks to the life span of the planet and every second of humanity representing a fight against extinction. The desire to find personal purpose and remain in place even when the government tries to evacuate us is one of many things that separate us from the animals.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 7 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

 

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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