Benh Zeitlin, director Beasts of The Southern Wild, last night at the Walter Reade Theater. Photo by Godlis.

New Directors/New Films attendees brushed past director Benh Zeitlin on their way into the surprise closing night screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild last night at the Walter Reade Theater. Moments before he went into the theater to introduce the showing, Zeitlin said no one had recognized him and figured out the surprise. He wasn't disappointed.

Last night was a sort of homecoming for Zeitlin and his Court 13 crew. The last time they were here a few years ago for a screening of one of their films — the short Glory At Sea — Zeitlin was in a wheelchair after a bad car accident and Beasts producer Dan Janvey was still working at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as an usher. A lot has changed. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, was quickly acquired by Fox Searchlight and will be released in theaters at the end of June.

Reporting from the Sundance fest, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis called Beasts of the Southern Wild, “Among the best films to play at the festival in two decades.”

Cheers bookended last night's closing night screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Audiences inside the Walter Reade Theater and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center were excited when the secret screening title was revealed, and even more enthusiastic about 90 minutes later when the showings concluded.

A look at an isolated community of Southerners living on the water's edge near New Orleans, Beasts offers an emotional rather than political take on the struggles of this community on the margins. It is a story as seen through the eyes of a young girl.

The film looks at “what it's like being a hold-out at the end of the world,” explained Benh Zeitlin, onstage for the Q&A after the showing. With handheld camera work, a cast of entirely non-professional actors, and a 360-degree set on location in New Orleans, the first time feature filmmakers embraced “every chaotic element, every risky choice,” he added.

Zeilin likened the production of the film to raising a tiger that eventually grows so big that you can't control it: “This running beast that we were trying not to be destroyed by.” 

Part of the idea for the film came from a play originally written by Lucy Alibar, which Zeitlin and Janvey saw at an early workshop. As the project evolved, however, the movie took various turns. For example, the filmmakers auditioned some 4,000 young girls before settling on newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis for the lead role. The intense and mature six year-old brought such weight to the young central character that the filmmakers decided to adapt their story even further to suit the young newcomer.

People may find it hard to pronounce the name Quvenzhané Wallis, but her performance in the film is one that they won't quickly forget.

After the Q&A session, filmmakers and attendees made their way to the lobby of the Film Center where a ten-piece brass band — Slavic Soul Party — performed and later paraded through the venue on a festive night. 

MoMA's Rajendra Roy with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin, writer Lucy Alibar, producer Dan Janvey and producer Josh Penn. Photo by Godlis.

Director Benh Zeitlin, writer Lucy Alibar. Photo by Godlis.

Film Society's Richard Peña, MoMA's Rajendra Roy, filmmaker Benh Zeitlin and Film Society's Rose Kuo. Photo by Godlis.

Members of Slavic Soul Party parading through the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Festival. Photo by Godlis.

Slavic Soul Party performing in the Film Center Amphitheater. Photo by Godlis.