Writer-director Brian Savelson drags four characters all the way out to the woods to orchestrate the sort of politely confrontational chamber piece best suited to an Off Off Broadway stage in “In Our Nature,” an eloquent but overly rehearsed drama in which a father and son, with their respective girlfriends in tow, work out their issues over a weekend at the family vacation home. Premiering at SXSW, the film feels like the polar opposite of the improvised, naturalistic-feeling relationship dramas that typify recent indie cinema, which could play well to those seeking more traditionally prefab dramas on the specialty circuit.
Adding to the pic’s appeal is the casting of two underused TV stars in the two male roles: “Friday Night Lights’?” Zach Gilford tackles hypersensitive Seth, whose deep-seated resentment at the way he was raised only comes out in proximity to his emotionally distant father, Gil, played by “Mad Men’s” silver-haired, ever-so-slightly slimy John Slattery. Despite the fact that Seth and Andie (Jena Malone) have been dating for nearly two years, never mind his none-too-subtle plans to propose during their weekend away, he has never thought to mention her to his dad.
But Seth’s attempts to keep those two spheres of his life separate are sabotaged when Gil and his new g.f., Vicky (Gabrielle Union), show up unannounced just as the younger couple is christening the cabin with a bout of frisky vacation sex. After some initial awkwardness, the two women convince their mates to stay the weekend, setting the stage — since the drama that follows is clearly modeled on polite mid-20th-century theater — for secrets, lies and long-harbored grudges to be revealed.
Savelson studied at Trinity College’s Samuel Beckett Center, and associate produced the P. Diddy-starring “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway,” and true to his theater roots, his characters seem to be constantly walking in and out of rooms, allowing for new one-on-one combinations: Uptight Gil puffs on a joint with vegan Andie, Seth softens to Vicky while the two hang out in his old treehouse, father and son prepare a meal together and so on. Ambidextrous stage-and-screen writers like Neil LaBute and Kenneth Lonergan have trained auds to expect fireworks from such pairings, but Savelson plays everything in a lower key.
The first-time helmer shows a gift for eloquent expression and the good sense to leave the script’s most interesting observations unstated, adding layers to what otherwise seems like a rather thin scenario (nothing is explicitly said about Gil’s decision to date a black woman, for example). But Savelson’s approach feels old-fashioned and perhaps even a little stodgy, especially in light of an emerging trend of improvised, subtext-driven films, such as “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Lovers of Hate,” which often see cabins in the woods as ideal (that is, inexpensive) spots to test unspoken tensions within a small ensemble.
Though “In Our Nature” may hold up better in the long run, it somehow feels false: All that meticulous scripting, rehearsal, hunting for the perfect location and careful reconstruction of matching soundstage-based interiors reflect an aesthetic younger auds don’t necessarily buy into anymore. Then again, one of the film’s more interesting dynamics is that it can be seen through the eyes of either Seth or Gil’s generation, as well as either gender, though it is the actors who enrich the underwritten female perspective.
Even though auds first meet — and therefore initially sympathize with — Seth, time spent with him reveals this seemingly carefree character to be the most damaged of the group. Perhaps the film’s ideal viewer is one who respects language, appreciates trained acting and identifies with a divorced Gotham dad who just doesn’t understand what grievances his relatively privileged son could possibly have to complain about.