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‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Rips Through Sundance

Benh Zeitlin’s deranged and touching Delta drama drew the festival’s most raucous fans — and some buyers, too

A storm blew into Sundance's Eccles Theatre on Friday afternoon, and it had nothing to do with the snow that fell all night on Park City.

This storm was a bracing and confounding Delta drama called "Beasts of the Southern Wild" – a movie, you could say, for people who think "Treme" doesn't have enough gumbo, "Take Shelter" could use more apocalypse, "Where the Wild Things Are" isn't wild enough and  "When the Levees Broke" could have done with a few prehistoric creatures rampaging through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Beasts of the Southern WildThe film drew a raucous and wildly enthusiastic crowd (a couple hundred of whom worked on the movie), and in its aftermath adventurous buyers were sniffing around Benh Zeitlin, a first-time filmmaker who made the movie through the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program.

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His film is uneven and its commercial prospects uncertain, but it's a ride to remember – a deranged and at times moving look at a south Louisiana community that seems to be composed of equal parts of the defiant soul of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and the isolated, resourceful and party-minded spirit of deepest Cajun country.

"Beasts" is by turns (and at times simultaneously) audacious and weird and annoying and lyrical and glorious and touching and ridiculous and exhilarating.

Among its cast of amateurs, the head-turning performance is turned in by Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, a fierce young girl who lives with her ailing father in ramshackle dwellings in "The Bathtub," a swampland that's been cut off from the mainland by a levee.

Wallis was cast after a nine-month search that Zeitlin said encompassed 20 talent scouts and 3,500 candidates, but the director said her audition was so compelling that it transformed the part from little girl to pint-sized warrior.

And Wallis showed a little of that spirit in the post-screening Q&A when she introduced herself succinctly: "I'm Quvenzhane Wallis, and I like to have parties!"

Throughout the shoot, said Zeitlin, the cast and crew braved the elements, participated in crazed shindigs and dealt with real bayous and real animals rather than sets and puppets.

"We tested the strength of the story," he said, "by living it."

He also managed to persuade non-actor Dwight Henry to play Hushpuppy's father even though Henry was in the process of launching a new bakery. The filmmakers kept coming back to him, asking him to delay the launch of the business, said Henry, who finally relented. (His Buttermilk Drop Bakery is now open in New Orleans.)

The post-Katrina spirit of the people who refused to leave that city, added Zeitlin, prompted "Beasts of the Southern Wild." "There's a clear sense in New Orleans that you have to stand by the place that made you," he said. "And I wanted to make a movie about that, and about having the strength to watch the thing that made you slip through your fingers."