To the untrained eye, Petting Zoo presents itself as your typical coming-of-age story told through the perspective of a pregnant teenager – a trope that has been documented countless times in today’s cinema. However, this film explores the issue of teenage pregnancy through an impoverished Texan youth, delivering a perspective that is separated entirely from politics and instead focusing on the poignant journey of the protagonist, leaving the viewer in an emotional mess.
Petting Zoo follows the life of Layla (Devon Keller) who is the top of her high school class as she suddenly becomes pregnant. After family pressure defies her from getting an abortion, she drops her college scholarship and moves into her Grandma’s trailer. We are presented with a draining life – Layla goes to work, to church, to school. She supports her family as there are little others who will. As her pregnancy continues, Layla meets Aaron (Austin Reed), who she soon begins a relationship with. Stress soon takes its toll, and Layla loses her baby at six months. So ensues her wait of three days with a deceased baby inside her.
Audiences these days are already well acquainted with the archetype of the teenage pregnancy film – but it is about the way in which the director chooses to deal with what occurs post pregnancy. In this case, Director Micah Magee has infused her own personal experience to present a portrait of a teenage girl who happens to become pregnant, rather than telling the story simply of a pregnancy. The character of Layla goes through an obviously emotional journey, but what’s more interesting is that she transcends these circumstances to become a capable woman, rather than a pregnant woman.
Magee had an ambition for this movie – to create a realistic representation of this issue that affects so many teens in San Antonio each year. Using her own personal experience, Magee has thrusted Devon Keller into a role that is exposed to its core. Magee has stripped down all preconceptions and stereotypes that surround teen pregnancy, instead producing a work that is accurate, and as such, also haunting in some aspects.
There is also a sense of intimacy created – Magee pictures the scenes in places from her childhood. In high schools built by prison architects; in trailers and rock bars; and in parking lots and abandoned buildings. The effective choice of setting gives an extra sense of authenticity to the film, and at some points, almost paints itself as a documentary.
Through the combination of a skilfully chosen raw colour scheme and a lack of music (with the exception of Laura Marling, of course), Magee paints a world in film that evocatively resonates with reality too. The truthfulness of this film may be both its biggest strength and its biggest downfall. Before you begin to watch Petting Zoo, you must first brace yourself for a whirlwind of emotions and quite frankly, a rather depressing ninety minutes.
Although it is disheartening, the range of emotions evoked speaks levels for Micah Magee’s talents. We are transported from the comfort of our lounge into a world where everyday, life is difficult. Magee has not only succeeded in bringing San Antonio to our screens, but also in highlighting an extremely important issue that so many face in the US. Petting Zoo is a skilful and insightful film that acts as a passageway through which we are well and truly confronted with pregnancy within teens. Though depressing, it keeps you involved until the very last second.
SCORE: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Petting Zoo premiered at SXSW on Saturday, March 14. For more information and additional screenings, head to the official website.