Outsiders basking in a moment

Updated: 2013-02-03 07:38

(The New York Times)

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 Outsiders basking in a moment

Dwight Henry and Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Ms. Wallis, 9, has been nominated for an Oscar and Mr. Henry continues to run a cafe in New Orleans.

Outsiders basking in a moment 

Outsiders basking in a moment

Outsiders basking in a moment

PARK CITY, Utah - Quvenzhane Wallis, the star of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," then 8, took to the stage after the premiere of the movie here at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago, along with her cast mates and film crew. "I like to have a party!" she announced, instantly charming the 1,300 audience members.

"Beasts" has since gone from Sundance darling to Oscar contender, and there have been many parties. The film has nominations for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best actress; Ms. Wallis, now 9, is the youngest best actress nominee ever.

It has not changed her personality. Ms. Wallis is in the fourth grade in Houma, Louisiana, where she lives with her parents, older brothers and sister, reading and going to basketball games when she's not being a movie star. It's a part that comes with good accessories, like sparkly shoes and a puppy-shaped purse.

The story behind "Beasts" is as integral to its charm as its magical-realist setting. A debut feature made by Hollywood outsiders, with mostly nonprofessional actors, it was shepherded through Sundance Institute's labs, where the filmmakers honed the story of a little girl and her dying father in a tight-knit bayou community. With a budget of $1.8 million, it was shot in Louisiana and finished just three days before its Sundance premiere.

"It was an extremely emotional week," recalled Dan Janvey, a producer of the film. Cast and crew members had been working on the movie for three and a half years, living cheaply in New Orleans to do so; 130 of them turned up for the premiere. "I remember tears of exhaustion during the first few minutes of the film," Benh Zeitlin, the director and co-writer, said.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" would not remotely be what it is without Sundance, Mr. Janvey said. He is a product of the Sundance producers lab. Mr. Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, who adapted it from her one-act play, also attended the labs. "Once they take on a film, they will nurture it through its completion," Mr. Janvey said.

It won the grand jury prize for dramatic film at the festival, and the Camera d'Or at Cannes in May, where Ms. Wallis gleefully went for a few spins on a teacup ride. Her mother, Qulyndreia, is her steward on the scene. The family has no plans to move to Los Angeles, though Ms. Wallis has finished another film, directed by Steve McQueen, with Dwight Henry, who plays her father in "Beasts."

Mr. Henry continues to run the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe in New Orleans. He said he was inspired to do the movie by the ethos of the filmmakers. "To put their whole budget, their whole film into me and a young 6-year-old girl's hands, who's never acted before, to believe in us, that meant a lot to me."

Mr. Zeitlin's life also had the potential to be shaken up in the last year. But he is still planning karaoke outings with friends. There are moments, though, when a glimmer of the change peeks through. After Mr. Zeitlin's surprise Oscar nomination as best director, Steven Spielberg sent over a bottle of Champagne.

Mr. Zeitlin said, "I'm at a level of dream come true, where John Cassavetes returning from the grave and asking me to have a Scotch with him doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility."

(China Daily 02/03/2013 page12)