‘Petting Zoo’: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Devon Keller in 'Petting Zoo'
Straightforward and cleanly assembled, this otherwise generic story is elevated by a fine lead performance from Devon Keller

Writer-director Micah Magee’s debut feature tracks a young Texan woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy

A bright but dirt-poor high-school senior faces a bleaker future than she anticipated when she gets knocked up in Petting Zoo, a solid if hardly original debut for writer-director Micah Magee. Set in and around San Antonio, Tx., which apparently has the one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the US, the film lucks out with a graceful lead performance from Devon Keller among a cast of mixed pro and non-professional actors. The gritty but unsentimental evocation of life on the margins offers another bonus, but the dramatic energy is a smidge too languid to propel this far beyond the fest circuit and limited release.  

Seventeen-year-old Layla (Keller) is frequently on the honor roll at her school, and has just been offered a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin. Achieving that has been no mean feat considering she’s estranged from her Bible-bashing parents. Layla half lives with her dropout boyfriend Danny (Kiowa Tucker), a stoner who spends all his time doing bong hits, and her Grandma (Adrienne Harrel), whose household is made unquiet by the presence of Layla’s good-for-nothing, junkyard-dealer uncle Doug (Cory Criswell), his unhappy wife Jeanie (Emily Lape) and their two young sons. At least Layla has her more stably-raised BFF Melanie (Deztiny Gonzales) for moral support and car rides to the local music hot spot where they like to listen to upcoming bands. (The well-chosen alt-rock and folkish soundtrack provides a pleasant backing groove throughout.)

Layla wisely ditches Danny when she spots him cuddling with another girl, but soon after she realizes she’s pregnant with his kid. Her parents refuse to sign the necessary papers that would permit her to have an abortion, so with no other options she has no choice but to decline the scholarship and accept a future working cruddy jobs like wage-slaving at a call center or waitressing.

Just when all looks lost, a chink of light appears in the shape of Aaron (Austin Reed), a sensitive fellow senior bound for Purdue in the fall, and the two take a shine to each other. In one of the film’s best scenes, which must have been tricky to shoot, she fesses up at last about being pregnant while he teaches her how to drive a stick-shift, and the film racks up the tension as we wait for the sound of the clutch coughing as the shock registers in Aaron’s features.

In a matter of minutes, Keller ably traverses a spectrum of emotions, from giggly and trepidatious to righteously defiant, all with lovely understatement. Willowy, strikingly beautiful but at moments endearingly ordinary looking, she’s a compelling discovery making her film debut. If the film ultimately doesn’t have much to add to the stockpile of stories about teen pregnancy, this will at the very least be of interest to casting directors looking for fresh talent.

One of the film’s co-producers is Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari, who made the wonderful Attenberg, also a coming-of-age story about a young woman. The filmmaking style here, however, is very straightforward indie miserabilist, with no dance sequences or flights of fancy, which is fine but in a crowded marketplace of like-minded, low-key festival films it could really use something beyond Keller’s strong performance to help standout from the crowd.

Production companies: A Makrorama, Troy, Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin, Haos Film production
Cast: Devon Keller, Austin Reed, Deztiny Gonzales, Jocko Sims, Kiowa Tucker, Adrienne Harrel, Emily Lape, Cory Criswell
Director/screenwriter: Micah Magee
Producers: Michael Weber, Viola Fuegen
Director of photography: Armin Dierolf
Production designer: Utah Snyder
Costume designer: Joshua Hurt
Editor: Chris Wright
Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 93 minutes