When you imagine growing up in Texas, there’s the idealized Terrence Malick version of things, as seen in “The Tree of Life,” and there’s the casual, down-to-earth sort captured by Richard Linklater in such pics as “Dazed and Confused” and “Boyhood.” But for the truest depiction of how it feels to come of age in the Lone Star state, look no farther than Micah Magee’s “Petting Zoo,” a piercingly authentic, diamond-in-the-rough debut inspired by its director’s San Antonio upbringing, shaped by her personal experience with unplanned pregnancy and rendered poignant by whatever distance she’s since managed to put between herself and those teenage memories. Following screenings in Berlin and SXSW, Magee’s all-American indie is well poised for acquisition and further festival interest on both sides of the Atlantic — no small feat for a starless first feature.
Neither as witty as Juno nor as woebegone as Precious, 17-year-old Layla is an instantly identifiable high-school senior, full of promise and yet ill prepared to speculate too far into her own future. That’s a familiar enough position for most teens, but a difficult one to capture on film, where ambivalence or listlessness can render a drama stagnant — the reason so many movies favor characters with clear-cut goals and ambitions, which offer a superficial reason to care about otherwise cookie-cutter personalities.
In “Petting Zoo,” Magee scored a bull’s-eye casting coup in newcomer Devon Keller, who plays Layla, a slender colt of a girl with bright, curious eyes and a defiant shock of pink hair at the base of her long blonde mane. An honor student with a scholarship offer to attend the U. of Texas in the fall, Layla exudes potential, and yet identifies as an outsider at school, poking fun at the pep-squad robots with rebel best friend Melanie (Deztany Gonzales) and preferring the bad boys to the letterman-jacket jocks.
Lately, Layla’s been spending nights with Danny (Kiowa Tucker), a long-haired stoner kid who looks like he might be more at home in a Larry Clark movie. Danny’s place is a dump, though it says a lot that Layla takes the time to wash the filthy dishes while the guys play videogames and smoke pot in the other room: She’s neither lazy nor irresponsible, but obviously lacks guidance and direction, flirting coyly with the one person who offers it, a school counselor with the sincerest of intentions (Jocko Sims).
Favoring observation over exposition as it does, “Petting Zoo” isn’t entirely clear about Layla’s home situation: She appears to be on the outs with her parents, who show up in times of crisis, but otherwise entrust their sexually active daughter to her trailer-park grandma (Adrienne Harrell), who’s much too distracted with her cousins to monitor Layla’s comings and goings.
Frankly, it’s not so surprising that someone in Layla’s position might end up pregnant — but then, her tragedy emerges from the fact that she’s become the cliche: just another knocked-up Texas teen who threw away her potential because no one took the time to coach her about contraception. How easily the predicament could have been avoided, though Layla’s situation is hardly unique in a state that still preaches abstinence over a more practical form of sex education.
San Antonio in particular struggles with some of the country’s highest teen pregnancy rates — a phenomenon Magee knows firsthand. For many, Layla would be just another statistic, or else an excuse to wax didactic, as nearly all American films dealing with an unexpected pregnancy are wont to do. Magee’s approach is not to moralize, but to humanize. Instead of passing judgment on her actions, “Petting Zoo” invites audiences to identify with a young woman who doesn’t necessarily understand her own goals until such obstacles arise and threaten to decide her fate for her.
If the movie is “about” something, it’s not her choice, or whether she even has one (a scene in which her father, played by Chris Olson, refuses to let her get an abortion rings true, but a bit too on-the-nose for the otherwise understated film). Rather, it’s about that ineffable sense of being suspended in one’s own life, not quite prepared to take responsibility, yet unclear on the fact that there’s no one else to look to — or blame.
Layla breaks up with Danny and instantly fixates on another boy, Aaron (Austin Reed), who’s willing to take it slow — a concept that Layla can’t fathom. As an actress, Keller blends the lean toughness of a young Laura Dern with Kristen Stewart’s skittish spontaneity. Her character senses the lure sex holds for other boys, but doesn’t respect herself enough to make it count.
“Can you, like, not have a boyfriend for, like, 10 minutes?” Melanie scolds her friend. Bound up in that line is the key to Layla’s personality: For her to advance, it’s not a question of finding the right person to take care of her, but whether she can learn to be comfortable with herself. At the helm, Magee looks back on those feelings from half a world away, having left Texas to study film in Berlin, an environment that both liberated her from traditional coming-of-age cliches and allowed her to look back on her past with bemused affection.
We sense that in the film’s best scene: Layla sits behind the steering wheel of a truck as Aaron teaches her how to drive a stick. She chooses this moment to drop the bombshell about being pregnant. In a more conventional drama, this would be the make-or-break moment — the revelation that threatens to derail the relationship we’ve been rooting for. Here, Aaron’s reaction matters, but it’s not the point. In fact, the film silently allows him to slip away, less interested in this subplot than what happens to Layla (though auds surely wouldn’t have minded a bit more resolution).
Composed from a distance of more than a decade, “Petting Zoo” feels almost documentary-like in the way it seems to be composed of fortuitous observations, rather than scripted from the ground up. Instead of being tightly written, the result feels somewhat shaggy, as if Magee found the film’s rhythm in the editing room. That may not be the most elegant way to tell a story, but then, character matters more to her than plot. That some things — like the particulars of her living arrangement or what becomes of Aaron — aren’t clearly spelled out and may even have fallen away merely corroborates the film’s authenticity. The truth here is in the details that Magee chooses to accentuate instead: in locations that feel lived-in, rather than set-dressed; in actors who aren’t merely reciting lines, but living them as genuinely as they can; and in the wonderful specificity that lends the film its texture, from the absurdity of walking to work on a humid Texas afternoon to the profundity of contemplating life atop Enchanted Rock (a location as majestic as the one in “Boyhood’s” last scene).