Pete Hammond

Fox Searchlight brought its prize-winning Sundance sensation to Cannes, as anofficial Un Certain Regard entry (one of just two American films so honored) premiered here on Friday to standing ovations at both its Debussy Theatre screenings. With the Louisiana Bayou-set film’s producers, director Behn Zeitlin and stars including Dwight Henry and  8-year old scene stealer Quvenzhane Wallis on hand the Cannes crowd ate it up. Searchlight releases it in limited runs  Stateside on June 27th.

The mystical story set in the deep Louisiana Delta’s swamp country deals with a young girl’s search for her mother after her father’s deteriorating health and environmental disaster put her life in peril. It is a unique story that has been a huge success on the festival circuit and will require special handling by Searchlight to maximize its potential. One clear secret weapon they have is the young star with the tough-to-pronounce first name Quvenzhane. When I talked to her at Searchlight’s party for the film at Croisette Beach she was loaded for bear. I started by asking her what it was like to be chosen from 3500 other girls who auditioned. “It was 4000,” she corrected me without missing a beat. Okay, okay, what’s 500 six-year- old wannabes when you are talking about a major movie role? Having had enough of Searchlight’s pleasant but relatively calm (by Cannes standards) affair she announced to the PR handler that she wanted to party somewhere where there was dancing. Last I saw of her she was headed down the Croisette and into the night.

Zeitlin, making his feature debut, told me she is a true live-wire and became the obvious choice the minute he finally met her in person. It is a remarkable role, especially considering she was just 6 when it was filmed. Plus she handles all the movie’s (considerable) narration. I asked the director if they hired a more experienced actress to handle that voice over work since it is flawless. Nope. Every word is hers. “She knew the entire script, not just her role,” he said. If this film manages to succeed at all in theatres, this Louisiana native could just turn up on a short list of supporting actress contenders this year, maybe becoming the youngest ever.

Related: Can Cannes Make A Major Mark On The Oscar Race Two Years In A Row?

Speaking of Oscar contenders I told Fox Searchlight Co-President Nancy Utley that the success of their current hit, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel seems so strong it could catapult the sleeper hit into the Oscar race. After all it is precisely about people the very age of the average Academy member and I am told they loved it when it was officially screened for them a couple of weeks ago with 700-plus turning out, a big crowd there these days.

“We are even surprised at how well it is doing,” Utley says. “We had hopes for it but nothing on this scale. It should end up doing $90 million internationally and when you add the eventual domestic total that’s a sizeable success. With this and The Descendants we are having a very good fiscal year.”  Searchlight and Participant fully financed the film, splitting it 50/50 she said. She adds that they are now on over 300 screens but should more than triple than number by Memorial Day, providing ideal summer counter-programming for the underserved older audience. The film is drawing that audience driven by word of mouth and had a particular pop on Mothers Day weekend when Searchlight staged a special promotion.

The pedigreed cast that includes Oscar winners like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in the story about the value of a person once they enter the latter stages of life clearly resonates. There is no reason to think it won’t also click with the Academy when Oscar season rolls around. Utley isn’t going there yet but knows these actors are als popular with the Hollywood Foreign Press so if it gets some Golden Globe traction that might help with its Oscar chances too.

The year is young but so far The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel would seem to be the closest thing we have to a legitimate Oscar contender — especially if it keeps up its box office pace. There’s nothing sweeter for Academy voters than a movie about old people that kills at the ticket window.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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