Pam MacKinnon on Benh Zeitlin’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview

Theater is a largely aural medium, so to avoid any whiff of busman’s holiday, I leapt at the chance to see Zeitlin’s visual masterwork. His small-budget movie pops off the screen in ways shockingly authentic and magical, made consistent because it is from the point of view of a 6-year-old. Hushpuppy, played with breathtaking range by Quvenzhane Wallis, tries to make sense of her world. The morality of the story is discomfiting as our heroine has yet to form a morality of her own, other than being at the center of it all. Her imagination, fueled by talk of global warming and giant mythical beasts, newly thawed, as well as her violent father’s stories of her long-gone mother, is as real as her filthy and ramshackle homestead and lessons on how to hunt or die. Fact and fantasy are a package, and the production design backs this up every step of the way. It’s all realer than real. Hushpuppy is a Bayou superhero with a soaring anthem, surviving Katrina and more, but she is also a tiny girl in pathetic plastic boots and underwear, braving hunger, neglect, poverty, and likely coming out short of a win. Zeitlin’s “Beasts” took me on an emotional ride through a community in crisis, a way of life as well as into a little girl’s mind. My eyes took it all in, and my heart was fed.

Pam MacKinnon, Tony-nommed for “Clybourne Park,” helmed the current Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

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