A backyard infested with ants, a blocked kitchen sink filled with red liquid, shabby houses, derelict trailers, unsupervised children and lost youth ahoy. This is more or less the Texas where 17-year-old Layla (Devon Keller) has to juggle her career ambitions and deeply reactionary family with a callous society and her quickly-changing body. This is a mammoth task even for a mature and emotionally-balanced adult, let alone for the petite adolescent.
She has just won a sought-after scholarship to study in “cool” Austin, only to find out that an unwanted teenage pregnancy could prevent her career dream from becoming true. Because she’s under 18, she needs her parent’s permission before being allowed an abortion, but her father refuses to abide, instead delivering a furious and expletive-laden rant to the hapless young lady.
The Lone Star State has very strange laws: at 16 a girl can drive, vote, buy a gun, and be sent to prison, but she cannot have an abortion unless her parents agree. According to Layla’s father, it’s the girl who’s at fault for claiming control over her body: “you are being immature, we’re going to take care of this as a family”. Religious doctrine and state legislation can destroy a young woman’s life by conveniently denying their body rights, and instead demonising them for simply having had sex. The father makes it clear: “it’s her fault”.
Layla is constantly punished by a deeply savage capitalistic system does not seem to cater for her happiness and wellbeing. The system obliges her to choose between a scholarship for an expensive university or being a teenage mum supported by parents at home. She is advised: “if you quit here you quit everywhere”, as the strenuous university selection process gives no second chances. This is a very perverse choice to make. But the same system prevents her from making this choice, leaving it to her parents instead. This is doubly brutal.
The healthcare system is equally barbarous. She cannot get any support unless she’s able to pay for it, and at one point a teenage friend has to use her pocket money in order to fund the medication to her friend. And she’s denied a doctor in an urgent and life-threatening episode at the end of the movie.
Kansas-born 38-year female filmmaker Micah Magee concocted a dark tale of female courage at the face of a society that defranchises and chastens them. It is also an indicment of a failed state. The photography is somber, the acting is poignant and yet austere. There are no melodramatic and exploitative devices, very little extradiegetic music, and the narrative instead relies on the subtle and yet cruel twists of virtue and twists of fate.
Now available for the first time in the UK, Petting Zoo premiered at the Berlinale and has since received various awards in international film festivals. It is released directly by the filmmaker through the Sundance Institute Artist Services Initiative, a self-distribution platform for independent filmmakers.
Micah Magee’s Petting Zoo will see its digital release on iTunes, GooglePlay and Amazon on New Year’s Day 2017 – just click here for more information.
Meanwhile, you can watch the film trailer below: