Kris Johnson / HoumaToday.com
The father-daughter tale was nominated for Best Picture and Best Cinematography.Child star Quvenzhane 'Nazie' Wallis, 9, of Houma, who had never acted before, was nominated for Best Actress, and Benh Zeitlin was nominated for Best Director.'This has been beyond what we expected,' Zeitlin said. 'It's great to just be nominated and recognized in this way, but if we win we'll definitely be happy.'The Spirit Award nominations aren't the first for 'Beasts of the Southern Wild.' The independent film won the top prize at January's Sundance Film Festival.Wallis plays the strong-willed lead, Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry, a New Orleans baker, plays Hushpuppy's volatile father, Wink.The story stems from a play by Lucy Alibar, an actress and playwright who makes a cameo in the movie. It centers on Hushpuppy, a young girl whose father begins dying of a mysterious illness as the natural world starts to fall apart.The tale incorporates the state's genuine sinking-land problem, but accelerates that sinking to mythic proportions, with scenery degenerating within weeks from a lush, Atchafalaya Basin-type environment to a fast-sinking, dying chunk of earth.The world starts to end, nature spins out of control and as ice caps melt, prehistoric beasts defrost and charge toward the young girl and all that she loves.The storyline describes tragedy faced with laughter and dancing, a band of diehards who refuse to surrender what they love, and a tiny heroine who stares down the end of her world with ferocious spirit.The fictional tale is set in no specific place or among any particular people, but filmmakers made a purposeful decision to shoot in a land filled with real-life characters and locales that could provide inspiration for such a story.More than half the cast hails from bayou country, including the film's star and five others in speaking roles.Zeitlin said shooting locally and casting local people definitely lent to the success of the film.'Pretty much every time you see a movie, people in it live in Los Angeles or New York,' Zeitlin said. 'This shows there's talent all over the world.'The director said during his travels all over the world since the movie premiered, he's gotten an amazing response from viewers.'People always point out the beauty and culture in the film,' he said. 'They watch and say 'Wow, I've never seen anything like this before.' I go overseas, and people say they didn't know there was a place like this in America.'John Penn, one of the producers, said the film and its local actors have brought pride to the bayou community. The award is a win for the film crew and actors, as well as their hometowns, Penn said.'We're beyond thrilled about the Spirit Award, and I'm sure it's pretty exciting for everyone (in Houma) to have a hometown girl nominated,' Penn said. 'We're such an independent film at heart. So to be nominated for all four of those categories is great. I'm so excited to be part of the film.'Presented by the cinema group Film Independent, the Spirit Awards will be handed out at an afternoon ceremony along the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., on Feb. 23, the day before the Oscars. The Spirit Awards show will air that night on IFC.Nominees are chosen by panels of film professionals, which gauge contenders on such criteria as uniqueness of vision; original, provocative subject matter; how economically they were produced; and percentage of financing from independent, non-Hollywood sources. Eligible films typically range from tiny-budgeted movies shot for $500,000 or less to productions that cost as much as $20 million.Though the Spirit Awards honor lower-budgeted films outside the Hollywood mainstream, the nominations often overlap heavily with Oscar contenders.Last season's big Oscar winner, 'The Artist,' also won the top prize at the Spirit Awards, while films such as 'The Descendants,' 'Beginners' and 'My Week with Marilyn' had wins or nominations at both shows.Wallis told The Associated Press earlier this week that she 'had to learn what an Oscar was.'If given the opportunity to go to the Oscars, Willis knows what to expect. The fourth-grader has walked many red carpets since 'Beasts' first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and then played at the Cannes fest, where thefilm took the Camera d'Or prize.Wallis, who doesn't watch much television, said she didn't know who Susan Sarandon was when the actress presented her with a New Hollywood Award in Beverly Hills last month. Nor did she know Ben Affleck and Kerry Washington when the actors congratulated her at another ceremony.'I'm just like, OK I got an award, nice to know. And then I just go back to what I do,' she said.Quvenzhane says she would like to be a dentist when she grows up, 'to see people smile.'But she won't be giving up acting, which so far has given her plenty to smile about as the honors for her and 'Beasts' just keep coming.But whether she or the film will be nominated for an Academy Award, 'that's not in my head,' she said.Staff Writer Kris Johnson can be reached at 857-2207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @krisLjo.The Associated Press contributed to this report.