Virtually everywhere it opened this summer, from Sundance to Cannes, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” garnered stellar reviews. Now the film is up for four Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Picture. This summer, WGBH’s Jared Bowen spoke with the stars of this story about a young girl finding her place in a volatile world.

The film sets audiences down at Land’s End — the very tip of Louisiana — where a violent hurricane floods a tiny patch of land known as “the Bathtub.” But despite the storm, a small community, including a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy and her father Wink, refuse to leave.

“People have watched their environment transform over the course of their lifetime,” says director Benh Zeitlin. “It’s taken 40 years and cypress swamps are dying, land is being pulled off into the sea. This island where we shot the film has 200 families on it in 1965, and now there are 20. So all those things were inspired by real life.”

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In crafting Beasts, first-time feature director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin put Hushpuppy at the eye of his storm — the character is a girl unafraid of what’s happening around her with a resiliency Zeitlin envies.

“The Bathtub is a fearless place. That’s what raises her,” he explains. “It’s not like there’s this kind of parenting like watch out for this, be afraid of that, don’t ever go over here. Those rules don’t exist — that toughness, that fearlessness, that’s the bread and butter of the Bathtub. That’s how they survive.”

Their home flooded, her father ill, the world seeming to implode — Hushpuppy copes as any six-year-old might — with a striking sense of innocence and pure imagination.

Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old actress who won rave reviews for her performance of Hushpuppy and is the youngest ever Academy Award nominee for Best Actress, says she admired the fearlessness of her character.

“She’s brave and fearless,” says Wallis. “[In] the way that she does her things, and the way she wants to do her own things…She doesn’t wear pants, her father is dying, she gets to complete anything she wants to, and she has more pets than me.”

For his film, Zeitlin cast first-time actors. Wallis was plucked from a parish near the shoot, and Dwight Henry, who plays her father, owned a bakery across the street from the film’s audition space. For him, the role was personal.

“After this last storm, after Katrina, you know half our cities stayed behind — because, you know, we loved the things that we loved, we loved the homes that we worked so hard to build, and the businesses, and the people, and we have family buried on the same ground” Henry says. “It’ll take the army, the National Guard and the navy to pull me away from all of these things that I love so much.”

Zeitlin says creating the film was a raw emotional experience for the actors — and for him.

“I would stay with [Henry] while he’s making the donuts until 6 in the morning, talking about everything that’s ever happened to him,” Zeitlin says. “So you bring that stuff to set, you bring it to the character, which is how those performances are what they are.”

The performances are forces of nature in their own right, and these unknown actors are now perched on the precipice of stardom.

“The first time that I had seen the film was at the Sundance film festival, and I’m sitting in the audience and I’m just nervous, nervous,” Henry remembers. “My hands sweating because I wanted people to enjoy the movie. So when the movie was over, and 1500 people stood up in the audience, and clapped, whistled and shouted in joy — you know, it really brought chills to my bones that people accepted the film like they accepted it.”

For Wallis, the three years that have passed since filming “Beasts” bring nostalgia.

“I want to be young again and do the movie again,” she says. “And re-do it, and re-do it, and re-do it.”