A zealous gumbo of regionalism, magical realism, post-Katrina allegory, myth, and ecological parable, Beasts of the Southern Wild, the southern Louisiana-set debut feature of 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin, rests, often cloyingly, on the tiny shoulders of Quvenzhané Wallis. Co-written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, whose play Juicy and Delicious served as the film's starting point, and using a cast of locals, almost all of whom make their acting debut here, Beasts of the Southern Wild strains to remind us of Hushpuppy's wisdom and courage beyond her years. She is a motherless child: "She swam away,"explains her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), a chronically ill, frequently drunk man, of Mom's absence. He and Hushpuppy live in separate trailers in a grassy, overgrown expanse in a fictional bayou area called the Bathtub. Stomping around her ramshackle, squalid domain in white plastic rain boots, dirty T-shirt, and orange Underoos, this peewee heroine confidently wields a blowtorch. But in trying through incessant narration to make a six-year-old a prolix sage, Zeitlin can't avoid falling into sticky sentimentality. That's a shame, because Walls has such a commanding presence on-screen—never more so than when the camera observes her up close and in silence, before the music, Hushpuppy's maxim-filled voiceover, and Wink's bellowing kick in.