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Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) spends a lot of time on the water, traveling through territory dubbed the Bathtub on a motorized raft alongside her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Wink seems perpetually disgruntled — maybe it's the southern Louisiana humidity, maybe it's something else  — and you can see where Hushpuppy got her scrappy nature. But you can also see where the 6-year-old got her sense of wonder.

Her imagination is big enough to accommodate bisonlike beasts that march along with a determination at once ominous and magnificent. But they're as real to Hushpuppy as a looming storm that threatens to wipe out the impoverished but proudly independent Bathtub community.

What puzzles her is the inability of others to see the world as she does. That includes Wink, who has a secret. It would no doubt frighten her, but he's become so protective of it that he's pushing her away just when they need to be closer than ever.

Directed and co-written by Benh Zeitlin, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a cinematic miracle, a film that carves out a vivid space that has nothing to do with wizards or extraterrestrials, but quite a lot to say about the fantastical creatures that roam through the humanity in us all. It's a dreamlike experience that is nonetheless tethered to realities not often explored on the big screen.

It's also the kind of film that's likely to polarize audiences, in much the same way as last year's "The Tree of Life."

Wallis has been hailed as an out-of-nowhere star, and the hype is justified. If Zeitlin gives the film its art, she gives it its soul. Because of her, Hushpuppy is one of the most complex yet endearing characters in recent cinema.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a film to get lost in.


Four stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:30 • Content Child imperilment, disturbing images, language, brief sensuality