In a way, A Critically Endangered Species is the platonic ideal of a festival movie: it's bold, challenging and memorable. It has good performances and a distinct point of view. It's not going to be a sensation after it leaves the festival circuit, and probably won't make your year-end list, but it's something that's bound to stick with you.
Lena Olin is captivating as Maya, a poet and author who decides it's better to burn out than fade away. She announces that she's going to take her own life and is looking for someone to manage her estate after she goes. The only rule: the applicants have to be male writers. Her interviews, like her writing, are unorthodox. They consist mostly of probing questions about the applicant's personal life, and less about his work. They almost all end in sex. Some of these vignettes are uncomfortable, some of them hilarious. She eventually settles on two finalists: the sensitive but brilliant Ansel (Nathan Keyes) and the brash but exciting Paul (Alexander Koch).
Over the next few weeks, she subjects both of them to a series of tests to determine their loyalty, their writing and their mental strength. She's toying with them, but to what end? Maya's motivations remain unclear. Is she really looking for an executor, or is she just using these younger men to stimulate her mentally and physically? Is she doing this to better them or herself? Is any of this even ethical? A Critically Endangered Species doesn't have any easy answers.
What it does have is a truly great performance from Lena Olin, who commands every scene through sheer force of will. Maya is an extremely rare character in modern American cinema. Typically, only someone like Isabelle Huppert would dare take on the role of an older woman so daring and sexually confident. Maya never shows vulnerability, at least not to the boys. Occasionally she lets her best friend an neighbor Leonora (an unrecognizable Rosanna Arquette) peek behind the mask she wears, but even then it's only for a fleeting moment.
That inscrutability kept me from fully engaging with A Critically Endangered Species. Your mileage may vary, but you definitely won't forget it a week after the festival's over.