Critically Endangered Species Review Image

SXSW Review: A Critically Endangered Species

Score: B-

Directors: Zachary Cotler, Magdalena Zyzak

Cast: Lena Olin, Rosanna Arquette, Nathan Keyes, Alexander Koch

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rated: NR

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.



About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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