Sporting its debut at Berlin International Film Festival, writer/director Micah Magee's Petting Zoo has a unique perspective on the coming-of-age story. The category is certainly saturated, so there simply must be something that sets it apart from the rest. Rather than focusing on the predictable societal factors that would punish the lead, it's about a young woman's undeniable potential. There are plenty of other teenage pregnancy flicks out there, but Petting Zoo tells the story in the context of its main character and the Texan location in which the feature takes place. It still plays upon many of the same familiar plot beats, but it's the young teenager herself who proves to be wildly original.
Taking place in San Antonio, Texas, Layla (Devon Keller) is the typical teenage girl. She's about to graduate high school and has a full scholarship to college; things couldn't possibly be going better. When she discovers that she's pregnant, she must choose between the life of her unborn son or daughter and her own future. Layla is no longer a child, and is forced to make the most important decision of her life.
The culture upheld in a certain location greatly impacts a film's story and its characters. However, many filmmakers don't consider how it will change the way that the plot plays out, and how the character's story continues to evolve after the credits are done rolling. Writer/director Micah Magee pays special attention to this. Teenage pregnancy is viewed differently across the United States, and it's important to address the cultural factors involved. Petting Zoo certainly touches upon these points, but doesn't make it the entire film. Rather, it's about how this seventeen year old is forced to confront a decision that will inevitably change the course of her entire life. Before she comes to the realization that she's pregnant, she has an abundance of hopes and dreams. She's a bit introverted, yet also has aspirations to become a part of something bigger. It starts with talking about the joy of making a girl band, and ultimately turns into the now inevitable role of motherhood. However, it isn't until she's sitting on the top of a hill and truly looking at nature with her best friend, that she realizes how small humans really are. This short scene holds a great amount of significance for Layla. The world has been put into perspective, as she fights for a future that seems both uncertain and terrifying.
There is a large amount of symbolism that directly relates to Layla. The issue of abortion is a clear one that leads to many sub-branches of information. The film doesn't dwell on the political aspects of it, but rather tells the story of a teenager who speaks volumes through her actions. Her job as a customer service agent at a call center directly relates to Layla's position opposite of authoritative figures. A note hangs above her desk that reads "3 word limit." Her voice is often suppressed by authority, but her boundless potential is what makes her special. Layla is an exceptionally crafted character that feels undeniably real. We come to care for her greatly, and her conflicts certainly resonate long after the credits are done rolling. However, this isn't only a film about pregnancy, but it's also about the young love that she develops with Aaron (Austin Reed). Magee's screenplay is incredibly capable when it comes to intertwining the various elements of Layla's life. It truly digs underneath the surface of Layla's character, and places the audience right in the center of it all.
The characters themselves may be strong, although the film relies a bit too much on the symbolism found in mundane tasks rather than the complex material occurring between her family members. There's a great amount of disfunction that simply isn't explored, which feels like a missed opportunity to display another dimension of Layla's life. When she becomes a waitress at a Denny's, it largely becomes about the ups and downs that she's experiencing, as portrayed through the quality of her work performance. Somewhere in the middle of the second act, the film drags a bit. Fortunately, it picks itself back up and finishes the feature with a conclusion that left me with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. The plot beats themselves are incredibly straightforward, but it's Layla's character progression that truly makes the film unique. Magee truly utilizes the film's strengths in order to deliver a final product that proves to be both effective and engaging.
The character of Layla may be well-written, but it's Devon Keller's portrayal of her that truly makes the film pop. Making her acting debut, Keller is absolutely stellar in Petting Zoo. She's convincing, likable, and tremendously fitting. Keller has an undeniable range that will surely attract the attention of casting directors, if she chooses to pick this up as a career. Austin Reed delivers a believable supporting performance as Aaron. Much like Keller, he truly makes us believe in the character. Aaron is hardly explored, although Reed manages to give him an amount of depth that allows his relationship with Layla to leave a lasting impact on the audience. The performances here are stunning.
Petting Zoo plays by many of the same generic plot points that one would expect, but it proves to be about so much more than a teen pregnancy. It's about a youth's hopes, dreams, and unlimited potential. Rather than relying on the predictable political aspects, it's much more about the individual within the context of the setting. At the core of the film is Devon Keller's spectacular performance, which proves that this new actress has an absolutely astounding range that surpasses that of many seasoned actors. Writer/director Micah Magee is a real talent, and I can't wait to see what she does next. Petting Zoo is an engaging drama with a fascinating core. Recommended.
Petting Zoo will play SXSW Film Festival 2015 on March 14th, March 15th, and March 19th.