As someone endowed with good taste, and an overblown sense of self-importance, I’ll be the first handsome guy to admit that going into Petting Zoo, a film with a premise that felt like a shoddy retelling of Diablo something or other’s Juno, had me feeling, like, totally lukewarm homeskillet. I cringed at the thought of having to sit through another “wise beyond her years, wise cracking kitschy teenage mother-to-be” spew gratuitous bits of pop culture vomit (Wow. You like Sonic Youth? Cool story, bro.) all the while making teenage pregnancy fashionable again (did it ever really go out of style?). However, after setting aside any ignorant pre-conceived notions I may have had, and ACTUALLY sitting down and watching the movie, I’ll be the first unconventionally attractive guy to admit that I was wrong. Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the film, not only does Petting Zoo serve as a resounding, albeit unintentional, ‘fuck you’ to Juno’s uninspired quirkiness (skirting witty one-liners, and zany shenanigans, in favor of showcasing the gritty real life consequences of underage pregnancy) but the film also serves as a backhanded commentary on the lack of proper sex education rampant throughout Texas.
Written/directed by University of Texas alum, Micah Magee, Petting Zoo follows Layla: A San Antonio high school student, from a lower-class family, whose hard work at a promising future is derailed by an unplanned pregnancy. She attempts to go to her Bible-thumping parents (in a scene that’s a little too on the nose for my taste) in order to get their consent for an abortion but is chastised into keeping the baby. With no other options, she drops her college scholarship, moves into her Grandmother’s trailer and takes a demeaning minimum wage job. As she bobs and weaves her way through the doldrums of adulthood, temporarily content at becoming another statistic, she meets a new boy and attempts to reign some normalcy back into her life.
Petting Zoo does a remarkable job detailing the lack of sex education in the Lone Star State without being too heavy handed or didactic. In a state that still views an abstinence-only approach to sex education as valid it’s no surprise that Texas has one of the highest teen birthrates in the nation (with San Antonio at the forefront). The underlying question of the film then becomes: Would Layla have gotten pregnant if she had had the necessary education? Moreover, who is really at fault: Layla or an educational system that perpetuates a vicious cycle through ignorance? Yes, dear reader, Layla may have made a mistake but it’s not Magee’s intention to berate Layla nor should it be the viewer’s. Layla is a victim of circumstance.
While Petting Zoo’s realistic portrayal of teenage pregnancy and depiction of working-class life served as a breath of fresh air the film didn’t leave a strong impression with me. I found its languid pacing and general malaise to be run-of-the-mill. It’s a story I’ve seen before in MANY independent films and I was hoping for something more. However, that’s not to belittle Magee’s ability as a filmmaker or her own personal experience that led her to write the film; it’s got a universal appeal that will speak to many people regardless of gender, race or age. I think Petting Zoo will generate buzz throughout the festival circuit and, hopefully, get a proper release.
Petting Zoo was seen at SXSW and is currently on the festival circuit. Visit the film’s website for more information on future screenings.
Ryan Darbonne is a mediocre filmmaker based out of Austin, TX. He is the founder of Cinema41, former Film Department Director at Austin Film festival and one of three unconventionally attractive men in the fiscally conservative hip hop group SPACE CAMP Death Squad.