"Beasts of the Southern Wild" tops Sundance

Left: Director Benh Zeitlin and Quvenzhane Wallis accept the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Award for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, January 28, 2012 in Park City, Utah.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

PARK CITY, Utah — A mythical film starring an 8-year-old girl and a documentary about the war on drugs took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" won the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition, and "The House I Live In" won the same honor in the U.S. documentary category Saturday at the independent film festival's awards ceremony.

Directed and co-written by 29-year-old first-time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" follows a girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her father in the southern Delta. The film also won the cinematography prize.

Zeitlin said he was grateful to the Sundance Institute and labs, where he worked on the film for more than three years.

"This project was such a runt, this sort of messy-hair, dirty, wild child, and we just have been taken care of and just eased along until we were ready to stand up on our own," he said in an interview after the ceremony. "It's just great that it happened here. This is the right place for the world to meet the film."

Zeitlin described his spunky young star, Quvenzhane Wallis, as "the biggest person I know." She said she is ready to be a movie star, but first will be going back to third grade.

Fox Searchlight acquired the film earlier this week.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild," a mythical tale of a young girl living with her father in a Southern Delta community.

Eugene Jarecki's documentary "The House I Live In" examines the social, human and financial costs of the war on drugs. The filmmaker won the same award in 2005 for his documentary "Why We Fight."

As he accepted his award, Jarecki called the war on drugs "tragically immoral, heartbreakingly wrong and misguided."

"If we're going to reform things in this country, putting people in jail for nonviolent crime, in many cases for life without parole, for possession of a drug, for sentences longer than is now given for murder in this country, must end," he said.

Kirby Dick's documentary about rape in the military, "The Invisible War," won the audience award, as did Ben Lewin's heartfelt drama "The Surrogate," which stars John Hawkes as a paralyzed 38-year-old man who hires a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, to help him lose his virginity. Fox Searchlight acquired that film, too.

"I don't think most people have ever seen this sort of story before," Lewin said after the ceremony. "I think it was very new and unexpected... From the experiences I've had seeing it with an audience, it seems to be a real emotional ride."

"The Surrogate" also won a special jury prize for its ensemble cast.