From a distance, Beasts of the Southern Wild bears zero resemblance to the typical Oscar contender. It's neither an adaptation of a literary bestseller nor a biopic about an iconic yet misunderstood historical figure. It doesn't hearken back with nostalgic affection to Hollywood's Golden Era, nor does it have a single thing to say about World War II or the Holocaust. Its director has no recognizable credits to his name, and its stars, if you can call them that, give new meaning to the term "unknowns." One works as a baker in New Orleans; the other is years away from finishing grade school.
Yet for all that, this staggeringly cathartic film may well figure in the Oscar equation this winter, scoring nominations in any or all of the following categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, and maybe even Best Actress, which would make newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis the youngest nominee ever. (Justin Henry, who was eight when Kramer vs. Kramer came out, is the current record-holder.)
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the brainchild of first-time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, 29, who grew up in Queens and later moved to New Orleans. He pieced the script together over the course of eight months, spending much of that time in the remote South Louisiana fishing villages of Terrebone Parish. The resulting film offers an intoxicating vision of a community beyond the edges of civilization, with all the freedom and terror that implies.
The protagonist, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Wallis), lives in circumstances that would alarm even the most committed free-range parents. She resides in a trailer elevated above the flood-prone ground, alone but for the company of her "pets" -- a snorting, clucking gang of pigs, chickens and other farm animals with whom she shares her meals. Her mother is long gone, and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), lives in his own ramshackle abode, close by enough that Hushpuppy can hear him ring his makeshift dinner bell when "feedin' time" comes around.
If that sounds grim, it's not -- not really. Wink, Hushpuppy and the other residents of The Bathtub -- a lush, lawless bayou set beyond the levees of a New Orleans-like city -- wouldn't trade their lives of Dionysian self-exile for anything as mundane as heat or hot water. They do what they want, live how they like, and celebrate more holidays than anybody else. "We got the prettiest place on Earth," says Hushpuppy, who shares her father's contempt for the conformists on the other side of the levee. "They're afraid of the water like a bunch of babies. They built the wall that cut us off."
Pretty is not the first word that springs to mind, despite the breathtaking production design and cinematography. These are wild people, with weathered faces and bodies, surrounded by trash and detritus, and most of the adults are permanently attached to bottles of booze. But residents of our overscheduled, overanalyzed world are likely to envy their fiery passions, their untethered freedom and their visceral connection to the water. Wink has instructed Hushpuppy to light him on fire and send him out to sea if he's ever too sick to drink beer or catch catfish. The alternative, being hospitalized and "plugged into the wall," is just too humiliating to contemplate.
Like all Earthly Utopias, this one faces mortal danger -- from nature, which sends an apocalyptic hurricane to test the Bathtub residents' stubborn commitment to staying put; from the government, which wants to relocate them to someplace more civilized; and from the rough beasts of the title, who slouch through Hushpuppy's fevered imagination, threatening untold annihilation to The Bathtub.
Will they destroy her, or will the losses she suffers at this tender age only make her stronger? There's never much doubt, thanks in part to the revelatory performances by Wallis and Henry, who together form one of the least orthodox daughter-and-father combinations ever. She is wise and strong beyond her years, without ever sacrificing a shred of her childishness; he can be childish, too, and maddeningly so, but it's impossible not to admire his relentless efforts to equip his daughter to protect and provide for herself.
Zeitlin, whose mother and father are both folklorists (really), never lets the story's magic-realist elements get in the way of the human drama. The film packs an emotional wallop -- one strong enough to seduce the seen-it-all cynics at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and at Cannes, where the International Federation of Film Critics named it best picture in the Un Certain Regard division.
Fox Searchlight won the bidding war at Sundance, and it's reasonable to think that the studio responsible for guiding such "difficult" films as The Tree of Life and Black Swan into Oscar contention be able to chart a winning path for this one. But before you pencil in Beasts of the Southern Wild on your Oscar ballot, it's worth noting that winning, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean taking home actual statuettes. Barring an epic collective fail from Steven Spielberg, P.T. Anderson, Baz Luhrmann, Quentin Tarantino and Tom Hooper -- all of whom have films coming out in the latter part of this year -- the Beasts team is likely to remain seated when the envelopes are opened.
Make no mistake, though: it's a sizable victory for a low-budget film, by a filmmaker this inexperienced, featuring actors this unheard of, to have this much momentum before it's even been released. And who really knows what will happen? If recent Best Picture winners like The Hurt Locker and The Artist have proved anything, it's that the levees Hollywood has erected around its beloved awards are still vulnerable to underdogs riding tidal waves of goodwill.
This story originally appeared in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.