Nature Calls: SXSW Review

Mostly good-natured send-up of the Boy Scouts paints with a broad brush.

Writer-director Todd Rohal's film stars Patton Oswalt as a Boy Scout leader who, dismayed by the irreverence of today's scouts, kidnaps a group of boys to take them camping.

AUSTIN -- Mixing satire and sympathy for an American institution in ways many viewers will find hard to process, Todd Rohal’s Nature Calls finds the writer-director following one culty festival film (The Catechism Cataclysm) with another whose cast likely will help it break free of the fest circuit, albeit on a small scale.

Introducing another man-child to contemporary cinema, Patton Oswalt plays Randy, an assistant leader of his elderly father’s Boy Scout troop who can’t accept scouting’s irrelevance to today’s kids. Choosing scouting’s survivalist values over those of responsibility and honesty, he essentially kidnaps a group of boys from his brother’s home -- where they’re having a consumer-culture blowout slumber party -- to take them camping in a nearby nature preserve.

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While Randy and two equally shabby chaperones alternate between boring and scaring the kids in the woods, his brother Kirk (Johnny Knoxville, as a hustling ATM tycoon) leads an equally problematic mission to find them, and Kirk’s wife (Maura Tierney, looking bored with the shenanigans) tries to keep the kids’ screechy helicopter moms from realizing they’re gone.

Subtlety isn’t in the playbook here: Characters are sketched roughly, and the youngsters at the heart of the tale barely register as individuals. But while the pic could have benefited from a more reality-based tone and from giving Oswalt more to chew on, Rohal finds laughs in the margins: Darrell Hammond, under a bit of age makeup as an oddly intimidating park ranger, and Rob Riggle and the late Patrice O’Neal as hotheaded sidekicks in Kirk’s search-and-rescue mission.

A midfilm disaster will divide audiences, many of whom may check out in response to the film’s handling of a character’s death and its out-of-nowhere appropriation of Christian iconography for laughs. (Picking on the Boy Scouts wasn’t transgressive enough, evidently.) But even at its nuttiest moments, the movie projects an underlying, mostly sweet faith in Boys’ Life values, encouraging viewers to see its characters’ sins as affectionate jabs, not attacks, on a fading institution that (like the Church in Catechism) has for better and worse molded several generations of American boys.

Venue: South by Southwest film festival, Narrative Spotlight

Production company: Troop 41 Productions

Cast: Patton Oswalt, Johnny Knoxville, Rob Riggle, Maura Tierney, Patrice O’Neal, Darrell Hammond

Director-Screenwriter: Todd Rohal

Producer: Lisa Muskat

Executive producers: David Gordon Green, Michael B. Clark, John Hodges, David Bausch

Director of photography: Steve Gainer

Production designer: Matthew Munn

Music: Eric Johnson, Ryan Miller, Teese Gohl

Costume designer: Jacki Roach

Editors: Alan Canant, Nat Sanders

Sales: CAA/Cinetic

No rating, 79 minutes.