Can we just all agree to put a general kibosh on the phrase “poverty porn”?
The label was predictably trotted out by a handful of US critics to describe Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance smash: its depiction of fictional Louisiana wetland territory The Bathtub is, according to that vocal minority, patronising and exploitative.
You can only imagine they were watching a different film.
There’s nothing pitying, or pitiable, in Zeitlin’s treatment of the community. Leading a precarious, hard-scrabble existence, their beloved homeland under threat of extinction thanks to the levee built to protect the mainland, The Bathtub’s residents are defiant and ferocious and indisputably alive.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (revelatory newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a pair of shacks on the verge of collapse.
With her mother dead, her father ailing and her home under threat from an approaching storm, she sets out on a quasi-fantastical quest for answers.
Despite their isolation - the community’s position below the levee makes them officially off the grid - the real sense of danger comes from Hushpuppy’s fraught relationship with her father.
An explosive and frightening confrontation between the two acts like a starting gun for what becomes the film’s emotional core. Where Wallis’ naturalistic turn is breathtaking throughout, the equally inexperienced Henry frequently resorts to shouting in place of emoting.
But as Wink grows weaker (from a mysterious blood disorder that seems more mystical than medical), his performance grows more nuanced. More alarming than the threat of flooding is the fear of giving up on his home and being forced to accept shelter from the city.
This resiliently self-sufficient spirit gives Beasts, for all its sadness and brutality, the feeling of a triumphant tale. Zeitlin blends magical realism with plain old realism to strange, striking effect.
Hushpuppy’s mother, we’re told, was so pretty that the gas stove lit spontaneously as she walked past, while Hushpuppy begins to see mythical, extinct beasts looming out of the doomed wetlands as things grow dire.
So many disparate elements should by rights have made for a mess on screen, and there are moments when you sense a lack of depth beneath the visual wonderment and powerhouse performances. But this is a vivid, ferociously imaginative and completely uncompromised vision, a bold, apocalyptic fairy tale.
A limited extras slate includes deleted scenes with commentary from Zeitlin and a fairly paltry set of casting featurettes.