Hastings High grad Benh Zeitlin brings 'Beasts' to Pleasantville

"Beasts of the Southern Wild," a film co-written by former Hastings resident Benh Zeitlin, is nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture. Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight

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Fresh off big wins at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, former Hastings resident Benh Zeitlin is celebrating the June 27 release of his movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” with an appearance and screening at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville.

Zeitlin, 29, will be appearing at the film center Wednesday night for a sold-out screening and Q&A event emceed by film critic Janet Maslin. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Zeitlin, a Queens native who graduated from Hastings-on-Hudson High School before earning a degree in film studies from Wesleyan University.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” chronicles the fantastical adventures of a 6-year-old girl, Hushpuppy (played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), who tries to survive catastrophe and forces of nature in a secluded bayou community, despite the illness of her father, Wink (Dwight Henry).

At Sundance, the movie won Grand Jury and cinematography honors, and impressed Fox Searchlight studios enough to buy its domestic distribution rights. The film also picked up multiple prizes at Cannes, including the Camera d’Or award, bestowed upon the best first feature film.

These accolades follow the success of Zeitlin’s first cinematic release, “Glory at Sea,” which won the award for best short film at the 2008 South By Southwest festival. Like “Beasts,” “Glory At Sea” was filmed in Louisiana, where Zeitlin now lives.

Zeitlin has also directed the shorts “Egg” (his senior thesis at Wesleyan), “Origins of Electricity” and “I Get Wet.”

Brian Ackerman, the programming director at the Jacob Burns Film Center, says the theater booked Zeitlin in May, off the strength of his showing at Sundance.

“Truly, the buzz of the festival was about ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’,” Ackerman said Tuesday.

Ackerman says he’s excited to welcome Zeitlin back to the Burns during the week of the film’s national release.

“I know that he comes here all the time, and he really wanted it to play here, because it’s really blown up,” Ackerman said. “I’ve seen the film, too; it’s brilliant, innovative filmmaking. … It’s so powerful and so visionary. I think that audiences are going to be swept up in it in a way that surprises them.”

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