What does Benh Zeitlin do next? That's the question after watching Beasts of the Southern Wild - and the answer can't come quick enough. A winner at Cannes, it's an ecological fable, a coming-of-age story and a reminder that the most valuable things in this life are often invisible.

Survivors of a Katrina-like disaster, Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry) have ignored the mandatory evacuation order and live in adjoining shacks in 'The Bathtub', the bayou area that 'progress' forgot. They have each other, some animals and the best of neighbours - hard drinkin', crayfish eatin' strays who don't have much and yet are willing to share it.

But when Hushpuppy's father takes ill and the authorities come sniffing, the youngster is forced to grow up even faster and face the prospect of making her way in the world without him.

From animal heartbeats to a boat made out of a pick-up truck, melting glaciers and people betting on how quick toddlers can crawl across a blanket to a finish line, Beasts of the Southern Wild is full of unforgettable sounds and images and can blow the dust off things from your own childhood. On this adventure down south you can see the influence of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green, among others, but Zeitlin brings plenty of his own wonder, roughness and uplift to the party too. He's also working with an untrained cast, and the fact that we've never seen them before makes his movie even more magical.

In Hushpuppy we have one of the great heroes of recent years and Wallis' performance could well be among the Oscar nods the movie picks up. Special mention must go to Henry as her cruel-to-be-kind father Wink; he's not always a good man, but he gets things right too. Outside of some pacing issues (the story goes too slow in parts), meanwhile, it's hard to find fault with Zeitlin.

This film is both a warning about our actions and a celebration of the human spirit, juxtaposing the tough with the tender. But despite all that's wrong in this world you leave the cinema elated, not empty.

Hushpuppy tells us she's recording her story for scientists in the future. There'll be more than just boffins interested in the years to come.

Harry Guerin