In what Oscar races is ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ competitive?

Oscar prognosticators have a new contender to consider in the race for Best Picture. It’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a low-budget, independently produced powerhouse that turns in unexpected ways and sends audiences out of the theatre shaken and moved. (Read Tom O’Neil’s take here.)

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When deciphering a film’s chances for Best Picture, it’s crucial to consider its final moments. Remember that jubilant dance number at the very end of “Slumdog Millionaire”? How about the powerful emotional punch of the final moments of “Titanic”? “Southern Wild” packs a similar wallop just before the credits roll.

To be sure, the film tells a meandering story about proud, dirt-poor Louisiana folk who live in absolute squalor on the very fringes of society. And director Benh Zeitlin relies heavily on the controversial shakycam technique that may leave older Academy members feeling a bit queasy. But there is no doubt that “Souther Wild” is an original creation.

No less a campaigner than Fox Searchlight is marshalling its considerable forces to make sure industry bloggers, Oscar voters, media analysts — and moviegoers, of course — line up in support. Halfway through the calendar year, “Southern Wild” has to be considered the leading contender for the underdog slot claimed in recent years by “Slumdog,” “Precious” and “Winter’s Bone.”

How will it fare in the other races? Adapted Screenplay and perhaps Original Score would appear to be the strongest bets at this early stage of the race.

The writers’ branch of the Academy has demonstrated an admirable willingness to step outside the box when considering its screenplay contenders. Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar adapted “Southern Wild’” from the latter’s stage play. And multi-tasking Zeitlin also wrote the score with Dan Romer, which gives the film its beating heart and a propulsive, almost dreamlike feel.

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Quvenzhane Wallis is the film’s pint-sized leading lady. Now only eight years old, she easily carries the film with a soulfulness that is arresting and memorable. Wallis and Dwight Henry, who plays her unpredictable, sternly loving father, are nonprofessional actors plucked from the South Louisiana community where “Southern Wild” was filmed.

Both are superb in the film. But whether they earn Oscar gold will depend on how closely the Academy chooses to embrace this strange, surreal and memorable little gem.

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