Gold Rush

Could Summer Indie ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Nab Oscar?

Could this indie drama—2012’s buzziest, best-reviewed film—take home the Best Picture Oscar? By Chris Lee.

Jess Pinkham / Fox Searchlight

If you’ve never heard of Quvenzhané Wallis, odds are by the time Oscars are being handed out next February, you’ll be more than passingly acquainted with indie moviedom’s newest, littlest supernova. Given her searing performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild—hands down, 2012’s most acclaimed film to date—it’s just a matter of time before multiplex America gains a working familiarity with the precocious 8-year-old actress and masters the pronunciation of her tongue-twister of a name.

That’s because with the theatrical release of Beasts of the Southern Wild this week, awards season has just kicked off in earnest. Although Serious Movies about Socially Redemptive Subjects, featuring Important Performances and showcasing Heartrending Drama usually start tromping onto movie screens with the onset of autumn and keep on coming through year’s end, the awards-season race this year has gotten off to a gallop during 2012’s hottest months.

Critics have been falling all over themselves to conjure original ways to gush over Beasts—the Bayou drama that grabbed a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, an audience prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and a Camera d’Or at Cannes—praising its magical realism, folkloric rootsiness, and organic performances by non-professional actors. “The movie, a passionate and unruly explosion of Americana, directed by Benh Zeitlin, winks at skepticism, laughs at sober analysis, and stares down criticism,” Manhola Dargis thrilled in The New York Times. “…let’s all agree: This movie is a blast of sheer, improbable joy.”

Meanwhile, a raft of Hollywood power players and industry observers has already begun hedging bets that both Beasts’ first-time feature filmmaker Zeitlin and newbie actress Wallis are shoo-ins for heavy awards consideration. “You just saw a Best Picture Oscar movie that’s coming out in the summer,” a top talent agent told me after I attended a Beasts screening last month.

With near-blanket approval continuing to flow in, it’s popcorn-movie season’s dominant indie release and seems destined to continue gilding that reputation as Beasts platforms from limited release in New York and Los Angeles into dozens of other cities by mid-July.

So, to give you a jump on the film that gurus of gold will inevitably be discussing and dissecting throughout the Screen Actors Guild awards, the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and on through to inexorable conclusion at Hollywood and Highland, herewith, The Daily Beast has provided a handy primer on Beasts of the Southern Wild’s primary talking points:

The kid stays in the picture

Sure, Wallis had to sneak into her audition and, at 5 years old, was the youngest of 4,000 girls up for the part of Hushpuppy, a strong-willed sparkplug quietly possessed of supernatural gifts who lives with her father in semi-squalor on the Louisiana Bayou. But when Zeitlin auditioned the newcomer (who’s often referred to as Nazie), he knew he had found his Hushpuppy and altered the movie’s shooting script to fit Wallis’s personality. “In the callback audition I tried getting her to throw this water bottle at our casting director, and she said, ‘I won’t do that. That’s wrong,’” Zeitlin told The Daily Beast in January. “She had this defiance and such an internal sense of right and wrong. With child actors, they’re always wondering, ‘Is that good?’ And I think Nazie has an internal sense of, ‘That’s good,’ or ‘I just did good.’”

Appearing in almost every scene in the film and delivering lyrical ruminations on the state of the universe, Wallis is a revelation: a tiny, vulnerable, yet ultimately indomitable sprite in rubber rain boots literally set adrift on a flooded tidal backwater in the aftermath of a Hurricane Katrina-esque natural disaster. If the actress were indeed to go on to garner an Oscar nod, Wallis would topple Justin Henry, co-star of the 1979 divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer, as the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award. And if Wallis went on to claim an Academy Award, she would dethrone Tatum O’Neal, who hoisted the golden statuette—and has remained Oscar’s youngest recipient for the past four decades—for her supporting performance in 1973’s Paper Moon.

First time’s the charm

Former freelance animator and film production teacher Zeitlin, meanwhile, had but one short film, a precursor to Beasts called Glory at Sea, to his filmography before setting out to shoot his feature debut. But the 29-year-old managed to channel all his liabilities—a shoestring budget, make-do-with-what-ya-got production values, and a utopian collective of friends and conscripts for a crew—to create a cohesive aesthetic of decaying grandeur and experimental storytelling. Beasts occupies a singular realm where hillbillies shoot Roman candles into the night, school bus-size boars called “aurochs” devour unsuspecting victims, and a random event like a little girl’s daddy falling mysteriously ill has the power to throw the whole universe out of whack.

When the movie became the hottest title out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight snapped up the Beasts distribution rights for an undisclosed sum. “I didn’t even know what Fox Searchlight was,” Zeitlin recalled to The Wrap with a laugh.

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Also there, at the base of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, several Hollywood talent agencies, including William Morris-Endeavor and Creative Artists Agency, competed in a heated frenzy to sign the young director, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter. Zeitlin went with WME, which was handling the sale of the Beasts domestic rights out of the festival.

The summer sweet spot

If Beasts of the Southern Wild manages to maintain momentum through the winter, it could follow in the footsteps of several other recent summer standouts that parlayed strong festival word-of-mouth into Oscar gold.

The Hurt Locker premiered to great acclaim at the 2008 Venice Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Summit Entertainment after screening at the Toronto Film Festival later that year. After making its theatrical bow in June 2009—on the same weekend as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—the bomb-disposal drama went on to take home six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Kathryn Bigelow.

Like Beasts, Little Miss Sunshine was directed by first-time feature filmmakers (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and was acquired by Fox Searchlight (for a reported $10.5 million—a record for a festival pickup). Little Miss Sunshine reached screens in July 2006; riding atop a cloud of critical hossanahs that carried the family road-trip drama all the way through Awards Season, the film went on to be nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, picking up two statuettes—for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor Alan Arkin.