A zealous gumbo of regionalism, magical realism, post-Katrina allegory, myth, and ecological parable, Beasts, the southern Louisiana-set debut feature of 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin, rests, often cloyingly, on the tiny shoulders of Quvenzhané Wallis. Co-written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, whose play Juicy and Delicious served as the film's starting point, and using a cast of locals, almost all of whom make their acting debut here, Beasts strains to remind us of Hushpuppy's wisdom and courage beyond her years. She is a motherless child: "She swam away," explains her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), a chronically ill, frequently drunk man, of Mom's absence. He and Hushpuppy live in separate trailers in a grassy, overgrown expanse in a fictional bayou area called the Bathtub. Stomping around her ramshackle, squalid domain in white plastic rain boots, a dirty T-shirt, and orange Underoos, this peewee heroine confidently wields a blowtorch. But in trying through incessant narration to make a 6-year-old a prolix sage, Zeitlin can't avoid falling into sticky sentimentality. That's a shame, because Walls has such a commanding presence onscreen—never more so than when the camera observes her up close and in silence, before the music, Hushpuppy's maxim-filled voice-over, and Wink's bellowing kick in.
Wallis out to sea.
Opens Fri., July 13 at Egyptian. Rated PG-13. 93 minutes.