Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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Since its worldwide premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, in January, a little movie called Beasts of the Southern Wild has been riding a wave of nonstop momentum that the creators of films three times its size would kill for, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

For those who are only hearing about Beasts of the Southern Wild, here’s a brief recap of its pre-theatrical-release whirlwind of adoration: After the aforementioned Sundance premiere, which inspired a thunderous standing ovation, first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin’s magical, pseudo-reality tale of a tough-as-nails, motherless 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy living in Louisiana’s southernmost section, and forced to withstand a dying father’s worsening condition and a devastating storm, was awarded the fest’s top honor, the Grand Jury Prize in its dramatic competition. It was promptly picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight.

Four months of word-of-mouth buzz and “Wait until you see this one, folks” musings from critics, the film screened at the even more prestigious Cannes Film Festival last month to an even louder burst of applause, before Zeitlin took home the Camera d’or title for best first film.

Now that Beasts of the Southern Wild is finally playing in a limited number of theaters, for the time being, our choice for the year’s best movie so far is set to win over art-house consumers galore on its way to, hopefully, a wider release, and, if the energy persists, awards season glory come the end of 2012 and early 2013. Made for a reasonably humble $1.3 million, and shot totally on location in New Orleans, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the kind of success story that fills cinema purists with joy, offering a much needed alternative to this summer’s surplus of massive blockbusters and R-rated comedies.

At the film’s center is 8-year-old, first-time actress Quvenzhané Wallis, a natural leading lady who, through effortless charisma and the script’s potent voiceovers, gives the resilient Hushpuppy a gravitas that’s as formidable as it is stunning. In a year that’s already seen films led by strong female characters resonate with audiences (see: The Hunger Games, Brave), Hushpuppy is the best character of the estrogen-powered lot. Standing strong against her daddy’s illness, Mother Nature’s wrath, and mythical razorback-like creatures known as “aurochs,” Wallis’ on-screen persona, so expertly conceived by Zeitlin and his co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar, helps Beasts of the Southern Wild transcend beyond mere inspiration, of which its empowering story of New Orleans pride and fighting for one’s home delivers in spades. The film is fairy-tale-level enchanting.

Not bad for a 29-year-old guy from New York and a stage play writer from Florida with no feature filmmaking experience between them. They were just a pair of fresh-faced storytellers united by a shared affinity for New Orleans and a desire to mine deep emotions from a human narrative made within independent means.

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