[Editor's Note: Oscar Prospects is your weekly analysis of an awards contender and how it's likely to fare come Oscar nomination morning. The column is comprehensive, so beware of spoilers.]
Will the Academy really go for a star-free, Sendak-esque allegory, whose rugged charms are tied to its loose lack of answers? At this point, it certainly seems like it. There will be those who'll struggle with what's behind the journey of young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), but the openness of this film's metaphors (ecological statement? simple coming of age?) grant it a broad accessibility, with oodles of obstacles represented by those encroaching horned hogs. What's more, the movie is anchored by a powerful father-daughter story, which steadily stops short of piling on mush, and brings gracious warmth to a tough and unforgiving film environment. Beasts of the Southern Wild is this year's all-bases-covered, Oscar-y indie, boasting worldly subject matter, a standout lead performance, dizzying critical acclaim, and true originality of vision. It ably fills a necessary slot in the Best Picture field, and the refreshing truth is that it's also arguably the year's best film thus far. Backlash is inevitable, and already well underway in certain circles, but it's hard to imagine any major buzz derailment. Films with this much widespread love historically reach the finish line, and thanks to a recent media push from Oprah Winfrey, you could say that any levees restraining the movie's influence have officially been broken.
One person who should definitely keep her calendar clear on Oscar night is 8-year-old Wallis, a Best Actress frontrunner who also fills another awards-season requirement, standing as the hopeful whose ethnic name will go from unpronounceable to household in a snap (see: Michel Hazanavicius, Shoreh Aghdashloo, etc.). Whether or not her performance deserves it (the work is more consistently natural than knockout impressive), Wallis can expect to benefit from the story she provides: a precocious discovery in the vein of Keisha Castle-Hughes, who's primed to snag the title of youngest nominee ever. The scenario will prove irresistible to a great many voters, and with this category offering minimal competition (only Jennifer Lawrence has inspired similar chatter for her work in Silver Linings Playbook), Wallis joins Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) and Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables) as one of 2012's few early acting locks.
Not quite as certain is a Supporting Actor nod for the young actress's co-star, Dwight Henry, another nonprofessional being lauded for his debut. Unfettered and coolly heartbreaking as Hushpuppy's ailing father, Henry would surely deserve a nomination, and his inclusion would be an inspired move by the Academy. But with heavyweight veterans like David Strathairn (Lincoln), Russell Crowe (Les Misérables), Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), and Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained) all looking like safe early bets here, such a non-A-list newcomer will have to campaign extra hard, especially given this category's fickleness.
Which leaves the behind-the-camera talent, led by Benh Zeitlin in his directorial debut. Any Oscar-watcher should unquestionably pencil Zeitlin onto his Best Director shortlist, if not necessarily in the top five. A successful, season-long push is what it will take to get Zeitlin to the end, and hoist him above or amid a whole host of big-name maestros, including Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Michael Haneke (Amour), Tom Hooper (Les Misérables), Joe Wright (Anna Karenina), Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom), and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty). If the Indie Spirits—which are sure to come knocking on Zeitlin's door—can influence the Globes and the guilds, the budding auteur has a definite shot, but he's likely to fare better in the field of Adapted Screenplay, for the script he wrote with Lucy Alibar, based on her play. And if voters keep their eyes and minds open, the visual tech categories will also save room for Beasts, granting fully warranted nods to Ben Richardson's Cinematography, Crocket Doob and Affonso Gonçalves's Editing, and the Art Direction by Dawn Masi. As of this writing, Beasts of the Southern Wild has been the 2012 film to present the most fully realized and breathtakingly specific landscape, dressing and capturing its on-location settings with guerilla zeal and dreamlike detail. You know you've seen something special when a shot of spattering grease gets implanted in your memory, the golden particles filling the air like fairy dust.
Surest bets: Best Actress, Quvenzhané Wallis; Best Picture; Best Adapted Screenplay, Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar.
Possibilities: Best Supporting Actor, Dwight Henry; Best Cinematography.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: Best Editing, Best Art Direction.