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Director Benh Zeitlin's first feature is somehow both highly personal and massive in scope

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Directed by Benh Zeitlin

Opens at the Charles Theater July 13

Vegan aspiring photographers beware:

Film is actually made of once-living material—mashed-up bone, flattened and rolled up in strips. In the cool safety of the theater, it’s easy to lose touch with its mortal roots, but occasionally a film clicks through the projector and comes kicking back to life. Such is the case with

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

, a story with a heartbeat all its own. From one frame to the next, life pulses throughout it—the air is alive, the characters (though not quite of this world) are alive, even the dearly departed seem to buzz with energy.

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Set in a fictional region of Louisiana known as the Bathtub,

Beasts

tells the story of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) who lives with her ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry). As the polar ice caps melt away, the Bathtub’s water level rises, driving most members of the tight-knit community from their homes. Plus, the melting caps have released legions of prehistoric beasts, locked away for centuries in icy tombs. Faced with the notion of growing up in a dangerous world without her father, Hushpuppy sets out on a journey to bring her estranged mother home.

Though the concept itself is a simple one when you boil it down, its execution leaves audiences surprised at each turn. It unfolds naturally, just as the design of the story intends, but discovering more and more about the world of the film is a joy in and of itself. Humorous moments steer clear of quirk; poetic narration manages to avoid pretension. It all dwells on the cusp of collapse, and that danger (and ultimate success) injects it with a spark rarely seen in film.

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Newcomers Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry command their characters with skill. Even seasoned professionals would find the material difficult, swerving from comedy to drama. As Hushpuppy, Wallis manages to be altogether tough and naive, establishing a compelling character caught in a state of transition. Her voice-over narration, though well-written, could sound phony coming from a six-year-old, but she fully inhabits each line. Henry’s take on Wink is powerful. Though his body is failing, he demands respect, pushing Hushpuppy in that loving way that only fathers can. Their relationship is natural: loving, sometimes angry, and always supportive.

Shot mostly from low angles, we see everything from Hushpuppy’s point of view. Conversations between adults fade into the background, and details surrounding her father’s health are unclear. Her world looms around her, both thrilling and ready to just gobble her up. It’s only through the journey she takes that she learns how to move through life with strength. Cinematographer Ben Richardson handles the arduous task of making the world of the film colossal yet still contained to a little girl’s perspective. Widespread floods unfurl on screen, fireworks explode, dust particles catch the light at just the right angle and drift through the air.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

contains wonders enormous and humble, as though someone were looking at everything for the first time.

Despite its irrefutable indie appeal and weighty subject matter,

Beasts

has the sense of excitement found in classic kids movies. One of its inherent flaws is that it might leave you wishing you could just get up and go, embarking on an adventure of your very own.

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