Beasts of the Southern Wild star Quvenzhané Wallis is an actress of talent, poise and maturity well beyond her years.

She was only five when she auditioned and six when she played the part of Hushpuppy, a girl of fierce strength and resourcefulness living with her dad in a squalid slab of Louisiana swampland known as The Bathtub.

She was just a regular kid from nearby Houma, Louisiana – she’d never acted before and pretended to be a year older than she was to be considered.

Now, at only nine, Quvenzhané (Kuh-VAHN-zuh-nay) is the youngest actress nominee at the Academy Awards. Altogether, Beasts has four nominations at the February 24 ceremony, including best picture.

While her presence is undeniable, Quvenzhané’s nomination raises the question: how young is too young to compete for an Oscar, the film industry’s highest honour, which has eluded performers with decades more experience and acclaim? Is a child really capable of acting, with craft, or do these performances reflect uncanny instinct?

Director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t think nine is too young for such an honour. Zeitlin, who is up for a best director Oscar with just his first feature, praised Quvenzhané for the incredible sense of self she displayed from the beginning.

But he also recalled one day when she seemed to be struggling on set, and he took her aside to ask what was wrong.

“I know. I can’t snap it today. Normally I can snap it,” he remembered her saying.

“The fact that she had an internal sense of when she’s in character, when she’s getting the emotions right and feeling it, is really special even in experienced actors, but especially someone of her age to have that sort of self-awareness,” said Zeitlin.

Justin Henry, who remains the youngest Oscar nominee in any category for 1979’s Kramer vs Kramer, said that in some ways it’s a purer form of acting at this age.

Henry was just six and had never acted when a casting director came to his school looking for someone to play Billy, the boy at the centre of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep’s custody battle. He was seven when he shot the film and eight when he was nominated for best supporting actor; he lost to Melvyn Douglas, 78, for Being There. (Tatum O’Neal is still the youngest Oscar winner in any category; she was 10 when she won the supporting actress Oscar for 1973’s Paper Moon.)

A voting Academy member, Henry said he thought it was “awesome” to see Quvenzhané nominated for the acclaimed indie drama, which he called the best movie of the year. Now 41 and specialising in in web video distribution, he looks back at his own nomination and acknowledged: “I didn’t even know what it meant… I just remember being nervous as hell about having to give a speech in front of 3 000 people. That’s the great thing about acting: in some ways, it’s a child’s game.

“You’re just pretending, so sometimes it’s easy when you’re a kid. You just kind of follow your instincts.”

Tracy Tofte, who was only 11 when she was chosen to play daughter Heather Owens on the 1980s sitcom Mr Belvedere, agreed that she didn’t understand the scope of what she was doing. She’d started acting at nine under the stage name Tracy Wells and booked 17 commercials in her first year, including a Pepsi ad in which she danced with Michael Jackson.

“From the adults around me, I took off their energy that it was a big deal,” Tofte, now a 42-year-old estate agent, said of being cast in the series.

“As an adult, I look back and totally get it, but as a kid, no. You’re just: ‘Wow, my mom and dad are happy and my agent’s happy and this’ll be fun.’”

Tofte hasn’t seen Beasts, but said of Quvenzhané: “I’m sure this young girl did a phenomenal job and deserves the nomination, but there are veteran actors and actresses who’ve never had those accolades and they’ve been working their craft and dealing with the ups and downs of this industry.”

Intriguingly, Quvenzhané is up against the oldest best actress nominee, 85-year-old French veteran Emmanuelle Riva of Amour.

Rounding out the field are Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook and Naomi Watts for The Impossible.

Thelma Adams, contributing editor at Yahoo! Movies and a long-time awards prognosticator, points out that Shirley Temple was already well on her way to a career by the time she was six, the same year she earned an honorary juvenile Oscar.

“There was a lot of craft to what she was doing,” Adams said. “With (Quvenzhané’s) performance, it’s kind of a life force. They have captured this wonderful little girl… but it’s not an acting performance.

“I’ve seen her at parties. I know she can get up in her party dress and charm, but I also saw a little girl who would rather be riding a pony at a kids’ party.

“To have her nominated, it’s not good for her, no matter how great she was in the movie – and she was terrific – but this red carpet thing is a grind.”

But it was exactly that kind of passion that drove such extraordinary kids, said John West, headmaster at The Mirman School for highly gifted children in Los Angeles, whose alumni include actors Crispin Glover, Masi Oka (Heroes) and David Dorfman (The Ring movies).

“I’m not sure they fathom the importance of the honour. They fathom the importance of the work they do – that’s far more important,” he said.

“Any of our students who have been engaged in the arts don’t do it because they’re looking for approval or glory. They are doing it because the work itself in some unique way touches them.”

West has no problem with Quvenzhané’s nomination: “People throw around all the time that someone is an old soul packaged in a very young body, and as clichéd as that may be, it’s true.”

But Zeitlin said Quvenzhané was still very much a little kid on the set: “She would say things to me like ‘Benh, I’m only six years old, you need to use smaller words’, or ‘I’m gonna get cranky sometimes.’ She had this awareness, almost like an observer of a child.”

He also pointed out that Quvenzhané was nothing like the girl she played.

“Hushpuppy as a character is going through unbelievable circumstances. She’s damaged, she’s morose, she’s contemplative, she’s quiet, she has this great burden on her shoulders,” Zeitlin said.

“Quvenzhané is the most carefree, fun-loving, goofy, playful person you can imagine, and she had to put herself in that skin on a consistent basis.” – Sapa-AP