SXSW FILM 2015
By Don Simpson | March 22, 2015
Director: Micah Magee
Writers: Micah Magee (screenplay), David Barker (script consultant), Kyle Henry (script consultant), Cooky Ziesche (script consultant), Wesley A. Oliver (script consultant), Rene Penaloza Galvan (script consultant)
Starring: Devon Keller, Deztiny Gonzales, Jocko Sims, Kiowa Tucker, Adrienne Harrell, Emily Lape, Cory Criswell, Jennifer Lauray, Chris Olson
As Micah Magee’s Petting Zoo begins, Layla (Devon Keller) is living with her shaggy-haired, slacker boyfriend, who lazes around their apartment, perpetually getting high and drunk with his friends. The constant party atmosphere at home never seems to distract Layla from being a responsible young adult, as she maintains her status on the high school honor roll, while also holding down a part-time job.
The ground beneath Layla’s feet is far from stable, yet she handles the highs and lows of her life with tenacious stoicism. After justifiably breaking up with her boyfriend and spending a sleepless night outside, Layla somehow holds herself together and attends school the next day seemingly unscathed. Layla’s greatest high comes when she receives a full-ride scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, but the afterglow from that news is quickly extinguished once she discovers that she is pregnant.
If Layla is to have any chance of breaking free her near-poverty struggle, abortion seems to be her only option. At 17-years of age, Layla is forced to beg for her parents’ permission to abort her unplanned fetus. Unfortunately for Layla, her ultra-conservative parents echo the Texas state government’s mantra about women’s reproductive rights; they would rather watch their only daughter’s life crumble into ruins as moral punishment for getting knocked up.
Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Layla picks herself up once again and tries to regain some stability in her life. While it seems reasonable to feel sorry for Kayla’s plight, Petting Zoo presents a positive role model for young women. With an uncanny level of perceptivity, Magee suggests that one can never plan too far ahead. The secret to life is to roll with the punches and use life’s hurdles as tools to grow and learn.
Presented with low-key naturalism, Petting Zoo rides out the ebbs and flows of Layla’s life with astonishing subtlety and grace, never once falling prey to melodramatically contrived narrative trappings. In newcomer Devon Keller’s extremely capable hands, Layla is presented with unbridled realism, as if she is the subject of a cinema verite documentary. The keen perspective of Petting Zoo is purely observational, allowing the audience to develop their own opinions about the onscreen events. Reproductive rights and unplanned pregnancies are heated subjects in Texas politics, yet Magee admirably directs Layla’s narrative arc without ever being heavy-handed or overtly-political.
Magee’s neo-realist approach relishes in the gritty atmosphere of Layla’s environment, introducing very little beauty into this world of low-rent apartment complexes, dilapidated trailer homes and endless parking lots of an economically-ravaged outlying area of San Antonio. Despite the ugliness of Layla’s world, Magee develops a beautiful visual poetry that highlights her confidence in the proverbial director’s chair, thus making Petting Zoo one of the most self-assured first features in recent history.