- Associated Press - Monday, June 25, 2012

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A Louisiana-shot film that took top honors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival returned to the state where it was made for a Hollywood-style, red-carpet premiere Monday night before opening in select theaters nationwide this summer.

The makers and stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” _ all newcomers to the big screen _ walked a red carpet at the Joy Theater on streetcar-lined Canal Street, hailing the New Orleans premiere as a long-awaited homecoming after media screenings across the country and at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May.

“This is what we dreamed about the whole time we were filming, bringing a finished film back to Louisiana,” said the film’s director and co-writer, Benh Zeitlin, a native New Yorker and one of only a handful affiliated with the film not from the Bayou State. “Coming back and seeing all this in New Orleans, now it feels real.”

Zeitlin and company have been on a whirlwind tour promoting “Beasts,” which stars Louisiana natives and uses the state’s marshes and bayous to tell the mythical tale of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy struggling to survive in the southern Delta with her ailing father as a storm approaches. The motherless young girl’s world consists of a small but tightly-knit shantytown community on the bayou with wild animals, both real and imagined.

“Beasts” won the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance as well as its cinematography award. At Cannes, where many U.S. films were shut out, Louisiana’s indie darling won the Camera d’Or for best first film by director Zeitlin.

After a months-long search for the young girl who would ultimately play Hushpuppy, Zeitlin and producers found Quvenzhane (Kuh-VAHN-zuh-nay) Wallis of Houma, La., who was 6 at the time the movie was filmed in 2010. Now 8, she walked the red carpet Monday evening in a bright blue dress with rosettes and a satin sash tied at the back. She wore glittery silver slippers, diamond earrings and a big smile as she talked to reporters and posed for pictures with the other stars.

Her hair straightened and bangs pulled in a tight braid above her forehead, Quvenzhane bore little resemblance to the pants-wearing bushy-haired wild child she portrayed in “Beasts.”

Dwight Henry, a New Orleans bakery owner hand-picked for the role of Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, wore a black tuxedo with a bright red vest. Like his pint-sized co-star, he was all smiles as he shook hands with colleagues, posed for pictures and waved at onlookers _ some who honked their horns from the street.

“We’ve been all over the country, but this is what it’s all about, bringing it back home,” Henry said. “This is the moment I’ve been wanting to share with my family.”

The film’s success has been a boon for Louisiana, which sees more film activity than just about any other state outside the entertainment hubs of California and New York. But few films that hail from Louisiana have garnered as much acclaim recently.

“We are all filled with an immense amount of pride,” said Michael Gottwald, one of the film’s producers.

The Fox Searchlight film opens in select theaters nationwide this summer, starting with showings in Los Angeles and New York on Friday and then New Orleans area theaters on July 4.

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