The opening-night choice for this year's International Film Festival, this American indie production, which won the prize for best first feature at Cannes and the drama prize at Sundance, is as memorable as it is unclassifiable.
The title suggests a natural history television documentary but if the film documents anything, it is the future: a meticulously constructed cinematic fantasia, it's less a conventional story than a giddy and fevered vision of a waterlogged post-apocalyptic world, a sobering vision of environmental meltdown that is paradoxically saturated with joy and wonder.
The project started as a one-act play called Juicy and Delicious, written by director Zeitlin's lifelong friend Lucy Alibar, about an 11-year-old boy in the Georgia bayou whose father is close to death: the two combined on the script for Beasts, crucially changing the kid's gender and age: a 6-year-old girl called Hushpuppy (Wallis was actually 5 when she auditioned) is the film's gutsy and charming main player.
She and her father Wink (Henry) are part of a ragtag community living on the Gulf of Mexico - "on the wrong side of the levee", as one says - on a small piece of dry(ish) land they call the Bathtub.
The water all around them may suggest a post-Katrina landscape, but it's part of a wider breakdown: call it the great economic crisis, the global-warming end of days, whatever you like. "Sometimes you can break something so bad that it can't get put back together," says Hushpuppy, whose thoughts in voiceover guide us through the film.
Father and daughter live afloat - their boat is the back half of a ute - sometimes alone, sometimes as part of a swampland demi-monde whose occasional unrestrained feasts of pork and crab shake a fist in the face of impending starvation. But clouds both literal and figurative gather on the horizon: the water is rising, the boat is sinking and the arrival of the title's beasts is imminent.
Thumbing its nose at narrative convention, Beasts is an exuberant celebration of life and film-making, and there is no denying the mastery of the medium: shooting on a US$1.3m budget ($1.58 million), in 16mm rather than digital video (and exulting in the richness of the palette he gets), Zeitlin has made the most striking and unusual film you'll see this year. Don't miss it.
Cast: Dwight Henry, Quvenzhane Wallis, Gina Montana
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Running time: 93 mins
Rating: M (violence and horror)
Verdict: Just see it