Although I did think “The King’s Speech” was a splendid movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is the best film I’ve seen this century.
Stand aside, Meryl Streep. Get out of the way, Natalie Portman.
The movie’s six-year-old star, Quvenzhane Wallis, could well become the youngest ever to win an Oscar for best performance, though Shirley Temple was given a special honorary juvenile award at the same age.
The former non-actor seamlessly makes everything on this original cinematic canvas seem real, authentic despite blending elements of mythology and parable with premature coming of age and a gritty, perilous bayou life on the wrong side of a New Orleans levee.
Wallis’ character, Hushpuppy, is also six.
She’s watched over by her alcoholic, dying dad, Wink (Dwight Henry), a loving, protective father who wants his legacy to be his survival skills.
“Beasts,” a Sundance and Cannes award-winner narrated from Hushpuppy’s innocent and imaginative point of view, ultimately is about man’s uneasy coexistence with nature.
It’s about a storm as ugly as Hurricane Katrina that threatens to bury everyone and everything in its wake. Global warming runs wild, ice caps melt and the rise of the water shadows the rising temperatures.
It’s about mystical, carnivorous aurochs — prehistoric creatures that resemble giant boars and, surrealistically, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — that trample all life in their path.
It’s also about Hushpuppy’s quest, while distanced from her ragtag home in the Bathtub, a swampland off the coast of southern Louisiana, for her dead mother who “swam away” and disappeared years before.
But, finally, it’s about faith in throwaway family and friends and makeshift rafts that may outlast the danger, and about faith in life itself.
The film’s components work in flawless concert to yank an audience into uncomfortable places it may not want to go — including a close-up view of government workers more concerned with regulations than humanity.
Aided by a passionate, throbbing musical backdrop, the fictional tale sometimes provides tension that may seem to override all else.
But flashes of love and bonding manage to quash that sensation.
Photography can range from blurry images of the girl to breathtakingly panoramic views of rising waters and crumbling homes constructed of detritus.
Like life, the camera, characters and story constantly shift. Regardless, it’s hard not to be magnetized to the screen through the 93-minute fantasy.
First-time director Benh Zeitlin has taken the allegorical screenplay by co-writer Lucy Alibar from her play, “Juicy and Delicious,” and knitted together diverse factors and a childlike voiceover that could make me forget the hand-held camera and think I was in a forgiving hallucination.
Some folks won’t like this film, and will label it too airy-fairy. Others will discount it as quickly as they do Terrence Malick movies.
It’s certainly not for 14-year-old boys only in need of flatulence jokes and car chases.
But for me, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is an amazingly touching fable about a universe where everything connects, if only for a moment — a magical merger of components as polarized as the lyrical poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the booze-colored harshness of Charles Bukowski.
If you even come close to being a film buff, or appreciate art or just like good, non-formulaic movies, this needs to be at the top of your must-see list.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is playing at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 4th St., San Rafael, and other Bay Area theaters.