HOLLYWOOD – Beasts of the Southern Wild
, the small film from a new director, won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Festival and then the prestigious Camera D'Or at Cannes. It's a tale of survival in a rural community of the Louisiana bayou. The emotional drama has critics standing up and cheering.
"The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts - even the smallest piece - the entire universe will get busted," tiny six-year-old philosopher Hushpuppy tells her father in the movie. Hushpuppy and her father, a hard-drinking scavenger named Wink, live in a ramshackle bayou settlement they call "The Bathtub". The settlement is about to be washed away by a powerful hurricane.
Director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin says although the location is fictional, the drama is real.
"It certainly is inspired by a lot of things that have happened," he explains. "Storms have always come, and I wanted to tell a story about living in a place that, every summer, the possibility of getting wiped off the map exists …and what it is like to stand strong there, refuse to leave and fight for it."
No one in the cast had ever acted, including New Orleans baker Dwight Henry who co-stars as Wink and understands the father's "tough love" parenting.
"You have to understand the region they live in on the Gulf Coast. We often have to go through dangerous situations, whether you are a child or an adult or senior citizen, you have to endure the possibility of losing your home, losing your loved ones, being displaced and things like that," Henry notes. "So I was constantly trying to emphasize that she needs to learn these things very fast."
Quvenzhane Wallis, 8, stars as Hushpuppy.
"It was fun because I really wasn't expecting all of this commotion and dirtiness and stuff like that, because I'm not that kind of person. I'm just relaxed …and clean. They actually had me jumping in mud!" she says.
Director Ben Zeitlin and Quvenzhane Wallis on the set of Beasts of The Southern Wild (Photo: Fox Searchlight / Jess Pinkham)
Director Zeitlin explains that Hushpuppy survives the harsh environment with the help of fantasies about aurochs, prehistoric beasts that give the story its title.
"I tried to think back to the way that I experienced the world when I was six," he explains. "I wanted to make a film that didn't condescend toward that and say 'oh, it's just a kid seeing things.' I actually took it kind of seriously and respected that point of view because to me she is the wise woman of the film and is the one who has both the strength and the sweetness to preserve this culture inside of herself."
Beasts of the Southern Wild
was filmed on location along the Gulf coast of Louisiana.