I'm blown away. Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild was like experiencing whistling fireworks for the first time. In the opening minutes, I focused skeptically on a tiny spark that spun and squealed, alone and aimless. But the darkness never stood a chance. You then set off an explosion of life, light, and music that sets the stage for one of the best films of the year.
And you weren't the only one who lit up the screen. There's the little fireball named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a scrappy six-year-old girl living off the coast of New Orleans on an island called The Bathtub. This landfill beyond the levies is deeper than the Deep South, and home to a stubborn society of impoverished misfits. Hushpuppy's father Wink (Dwight Henry) is a self-proclaimed leader of the group who refuses to leave despite warnings of a major storm (Hurricane Katrina). Hushpuppy, meanwhile, believes that ancient animals called Aurochs are just coming to reclaim their home. Either way, no one is safe.
Though rain and winds are the obvious threat, your fire is certainly the most versatile element of the film. In the opening party scene, it expresses joy. In the next scene, it's played for laughs as the fiercely independent Hushpuppy lights a gas stove with a blow-torch. Then fire becomes a major threat, burning down her house and forcing her to share a trailer with her combustible father. Fire also provides comfort, letting them share an unusually quiet moment together. And at the mid-point of the film, a stick of dynamite seems ready to solve their problems, but only make matters worse.
Each of these early plot points, plus a final blaze on a boat, put your pyrotechnics at the centre of the action. Amidst shaky camera work and unpolished dialogue, they help light a trail for the audience to follow. But it's the spirit of the film that burns brightest - an eclectic mix of Where the Wild Things Are meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Director, co-writer and composer Benh Zeitlin moves the story with a contagious rhythm that isn't afraid to frequently warm your heart. He lets the amateur actors keep it real and keeps fantastical elements feeling grounded.
The mix of narrative ingredients could have blown up in his face. But the chemistry is just right, from the affectionate ways Wink disregards his daughter's gender (calling her "man" and saying one day she'll be the King of the Bathtub), to the defiant first-person voiceover by a child. The big winner at Sundance 2012 and my favourite film from this year's Festival de Cannes deserves to be celebrated. I hope you've got a few more fireworks handy.