SXSW 2015: ‘Petting Zoo’ documents the transition from adolescence to adulthood with intimate detail

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Petting Zoo 
Written and directed by Micah Magee
USA/Germany/Greece, 2015

“I’m everywhere now, the way is a vow to the wind of each breath by and by.” Johnny Flynn’s “The Water” is prominently featured twice in Micah Magee’s Petting Zoo, serving to remind the audience of life’s unpredictable nature. People may make plans for the future, but in reality there is no telling how the road before them will unfold. Protagonist Layla (Devon Keller) experiences a number of difficult transitions throughout Petting Zoo. Over the course of several months, she progresses from adolescence to maturity, and Magee’s camera is there to document her growth in poignant, intimate detail.

Layla’s story begins on a high note. An honor roll student and hard-working individual, she secures a full-ride scholarship to the University of Texas. She lives primarily with her congenial grandmother, apparently having a strained relationship with her parents. Many of her nights, though, are spent with her boyfriend, a deadbeat who seems destined to live and die in his rundown San Antonio apartment complex. Why an individual as promising as Layla is with such a loser is a mystery. Needless to say, the relationship does not last long. With graduation on the horizon, Layla loses the deadwood and prepares for the bright future ahead.

Then she discovers she’s pregnant, and everything changes. Layla initially asks her parents to consent to her having an abortion, but they flatly refuse, presumably due to their steadfast religious beliefs. For a brief moment, Petting Zoo threatens to become a social message movie concerning the immorality of abortion, but Magee never strays into such territory. Her focus is Layla, not politics. Layla ultimately chooses to go through with the pregnancy and forgo her scholarship, though it is not due to suddenly realizing the “wickedness” of her intended actions. Rather it is because the adults in her life hold such sway over her, and Layla is too young to know how to handle mature situations on her own.

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Graduation comes and goes. Layla remains in her hometown, becoming a waitress and watching former friends set out for college. Before Petting Zoo comes to an end, though, she will continue to make transitions, continue to grow into adulthood.

Magee covers a lot of narrative ground in the span of 90 minutes, but she never sacrifices her story’s intimacy or realism. She shot the film in a cinéma vérité style and used only real locations in and around San Antonio during production. Both of these decisions contribute to Petting Zoo’s authentic atmosphere. Moreover, Keller’s naturalistic performance acts as an anchor, always keeping the film grounded and sincere.

At various points, Petting Zoo proves itself to be astoundingly perceptive. It understands how experiences change people, how various decisions alter the entire course of a life. We all may make our grand schemes for the future, but we are really just floating along in the world, completely unaware of what the new day will bring. Our past is behind us, and the future lies ahead, opaque and uncertain. As Johnny Flynn croons, “Now the land that I knew is a dream, and the line on the distance grows faint.”

– Jacob Carter

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