I'LL LET YOU IN on a secret: Writing negative reviews is pretty easy. Every doofy plot twist and bungled CG jumpkick pulls you out of the moviegoing experience, allowing you plenty of time to compose elaborately mean puns for your headline. It's harder to review a movie when it succeeds—and I mean really succeeds, in that it draws you in completely. Beasts of the Southern Wild is that kind of movie: You may leave the theater conflicted and even confused, but you won't be thinking about anything else while you're watching it.
Beasts tells the story of a little girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who a lives on a precarious isthmus between the sea and civilization. She and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) sleep in a pair of crumbling stilt houses and live off the scrawny livestock that root around underneath. Their community, the Bathtub, is one of those untenably magical towns that exist only when you're six: Everyone drinks during the day and makes up holidays to celebrate at night. It's fantastic.
It's also dying. Slowly at first—and then extremely not slowly, when a hurricane hits and her father gets sick. That might sound like a downer, but strong performances and an unreasonably good soundtrack keep the increasingly apocalyptic plot from feeling like either emotional homework or tragedy porn. (The score, by Dan Romer and director Benh Zeitlin, deserves special credit—it leavens the occasional heartbreak and underscores the losses that hide behind small triumphs.)
What I like most about Beasts is that it presents a world where being happy and being pretty fucked-up aren't mutually exclusive. Wink and Hushpuppy are never arbitrarily punished for being poor or making questionable decisions. Their actions have consequences but, like real life, these consequences aren't always immediately apparent. It's a grounded approach for a film that takes some pretty surreal turns. For instance, there are giant prehistoric pig monsters.
But for all its tonal shifts, Beasts feels remarkably consistent. While the film isn't perfect (few things are in this life), it does contain a few perfect moments and some strong threads connecting them. I won't explain them to you; I'm not even sure I could. You'll know them when you see them, and they will contain you in a way that only great cinema can. That part's easy.