In a bayou somewhere in southern America, 6-year-old girl Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a self-sustaining community called the Bathtub. Living outside of the western world, they learn to survive together, battling against the elements and hunting for food. For Hushpuppy, affectionately dubbed "boss lady" by her father, every day is like a holiday.
However, when Wink's health begins to deteriorate and a storm strikes the Bathtub, Hushpuppy quickly begins to see her universe unravel. She's fascinated by nature and life, often pressing her ear against animals in search of a heartbeat, so the prospect of her world collapsing sends her active imagination running wild.
Ice caps collapse as water levels rise and giant aurochs stampede through the community as rickety shacks begin to fall. "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right," she observes. "If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the whole universe will get busted."
The spine-tingling score, which wouldn't seem out of place on an Arcade Fire album, is also the perfect accompaniment as Beasts of the Southern Wild gently cajoles your emotions.
For all James Cameron's bluster about 3D's power to transport audiences, here is a movie that's able to effortlessly create a vivid cinema landscape without using the most expensive equipment in the toy box.
Newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis is the heartbeat of Beasts, delivering a captivating performance in her first acting role. Her voiceover narration lends the film a storybook quality, perfectly complimenting the character's wide-eyed spirit, playful humour and plucky courage. Huge credit should also go to Dwight Henry for establishing a seemingly unbreakable rapport with his co-star. Remarkably, Henry ran a bakery across the street from the Beasts casting crew before winning the role. Both leads, who've since nabbed roles in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave, give performances worthy of serious awards attention.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a flawless debut feature, and one that lingers on the mind long after it's over. It's brief at 90 minutes, but for a film so slight it cleverly articulates ideas about man's relationship with nature, the fragile ecological environment and childhood wonder. The cruelness of mortality also weighs heavy on Beasts's mind, but despite all that it's a hugely uplifting and inspiring work.
Beasts is an extraordinary, deeply moving film that's one of the best of 2012. When the end credits roll - just like Hushpuppy - you'll feel like the king of the Bathtub.
Photo gallery - BFI London Film Festival in pictures: