The wondrous "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is set in a flood-ravaged, impoverished Louisiana island where a single father teaches his 6-year-old daughter, Hushpuppy, to fend for herself. In her imaginative view, their hardscrabble village is a magical place, despite the rising waters that threaten to drown it. Confident beyond her years, the little heroine is mostly fearless, even staring down the mastodon-like cattle that she fantasizes have broken free from collapsing glaciers.

"Beasts" was the out-of-left-field sensation of this year's Sundance film festival, rightly earning the Grand Jury Prize. At Cannes, it won the Camera d'Or for the best debut film and the international critics' prize.

Gaining momentum with raves in the Hollywood Reporter, New York Times and Rolling Stone, this touching, inspiring first feature from 29-year-old director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin seems on track to earn a cluster of Oscar nominations. One near-certainty is a best actress nod for Quvenzhane Wallis (often called Nazie), the film's entrancing young star, who, like most of the cast, had never acted before.

"Beasts" wasn't in its final form until two days before its Sundance triumph in January, and earlier drafts hadn't connected with viewers in the way Zeitlin hoped, he said in a phone interview last month. When it took the competition's top prize, "It was difficult to process what was happening. It was great to be there with all our people and Nazie ruling the dance floor" amid the adults at the closing ceremony. "You just had to close your eyes and let the roller coaster take you."

Team effort breaks rules

The Queens-born filmmaker had a hand in most aspects of the low-budget production, even co-composing the Cajun-flavored soundtrack, "but it was like an athletic event. We had this whole team and we set these really crazy goals for ourselves without really knowing if we could execute them. Before shooting, it's like being at the starting line. Once it goes, you're really trying to survive."

The production broke three cardinal rules of filmmaking: Never work with children, water or animals. Zeitlin credits the mythic environment of Louisiana with helping those unpredictable elements mesh into a lyrical fable. "In Louisiana you do feel at moments like you're just being taken care of by some sort of invisible force that gets you out of situations," he said. "The shoot was totally chaotic, but not because we didn't prepare like crazy," with three years in preproduction.

When his star got cranky or the current moved his camera in the wrong direction or animals wouldn't cooperate, that created spontaneous moments that energized the movie in ways no previsualized shot could equal.

"Beasts" was adapted from a stage production, with Zeitlin and playwright Lucy Alibar collaborating on the script for a year and a half. "It's not like there are scenes from the play that we translated onto the screen," Zeitlin said. "The characters and tone and basic shape of the story came from the play, more than a page-to-page adaptation."

Zeitlin was working on a story about holdouts at the end of the road in south Louisiana. At the same time he was adapting Alibar's work into a different short film. Then he realized that there was an emotional connection between his story and hers. Ultimately, they collaborated on a screenplay that worked through those parallel themes.

It wasn't initially apparent that the film's voice would be that of little Hushpuppy. The character was at first conceived as an 11-year-old boy. During the casting and auditioning process, they had "a horrifying revelation" that it wouldn't work. A child of 11 speaking lines like, "In a million years, when kids go to school, they're gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy," would sound "daft," Zeitlin said. "When a 6-year-old said it, it resonated in the right way," combining a wise woman's perspective on the world with childish innocence.

One child among many

While the script was taking shape, Zeitlin looked at almost 4,000 kids in the course of a year. When the 5-year-old Wallis walked in, "she changed the entire shape of the film. We never expected a person that young could have the kind of strength and focus and fearlessness that she brought to the character." Of course, for little children, focus comes and goes. At one point after a long day of shooting, Zeitlin could get another take from his tiny star only by promising her a pizza party.

As her strong, loving, erratic father, Zeitlin originally planned on casting a professional. "We thought it was just too dynamic for a non-actor to play it." In the end, he chose another mesmerizing novice. Dwight Henry owned the bakery located next to the casting office.

"When we were doing auditions, we would go in there and get pastries. It was like our snack joint. He runs that place like it's a community center. Everybody knows Mr. Henry and the bakery. He was the only nonprofessional ever considered for the role, and he just haunted us. And when we brought him into the same room as her, their chemistry kind of exploded."

Their natural gifts notwithstanding, they learned how to act before filming began. "They're amazing people and they were determined to learn the craft. It's not like we just pulled him out of the bakery and put a camera on him," Zeitlin said.

Given the subject of the film, it was essential to build the cast from local residents, he said. "This is a film about living in a place where existence is precarious. It's not just Katrina, or Ike, or Rita, it's this feeling that your home, your history and your culture could be wiped off the face of the Earth." Having lived there since 2006, he has observed Louisianans' "glorious independence born out of incredible bravery. It's an extremely fearless place. It's a culture that respects courage, especially in the way that children are raised.

"Where I'm from and in a lot of places in America, we teach children to be afraid in order to keep them safe. I really admire the way that Louisiana teaches bravery. It allows you to not be controlled by fear. It creates resilient, courageous people. To me it's not a tragic place. It's a Utopian place."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 Twitter: @colincovert