Big screen family dramas are tricky. In the right hands, dysfunction can yield gems like Ordinary People, Little Miss Sunshine or American Beauty. Without the deftness and talent to balance the melodrama, films tend to drift into Lifetime or Hallmark channel territory.
In Our Nature, writer-director Brian Savelson’s feature film debut, falls decidedly in between the two extremes. With Broadway productions (A Raisin in the Sun) and music videos (Band of Horses, Ra Ra Riot) in his portfolio, Savelson’s intimate drama is buoyed by great acting and beautiful cinematography.
Zach Gilford plays Seth—a role reminiscent of an older Matt Saracen, his character from Friday Night Lights—who intends to propose to his girlfriend, Andie (Jena Malone), at his family’s cabin upstate. The plan goes awry when Seth’s estranged father Gil (the terrific John Slattery) shows up with his much younger girlfriend, Vicky (Gabrielle Union). Both father and son are caught off-guard in meeting each other’s previously unknown partners.
The quartet is a study in contrasts. Gil, a lawyer, and Vicky, a psychiatrist, are career-oriented Manhattanites. Seth, a musician and cook, and Andie, a nonprofit worker, are ensconced a bridge and a world away in Brooklyn.
Father and son try to make excuses for leaving the cabin early. It’s followed by an awkward dinner scene probably mirrored in dining rooms across America during the recent Thanksgiving holidays. Vicky cooks a meal for the foursome. Of course, Andie is a vegan, and Seth is a vegetarian-turning-vegan. During a forced, but civil conversation at the dinner table, Vicky reveals her secret to ensuring people enjoy her food: butter. And a whole lot of it.
Andie reassures a remorseful Vicky that everything’s fine, but Gil mocks Seth’s irritation by offering him wine with a warning that it too contains an animal product—bacteria—that ferments the grapes. There are lots of vegan/vegetarian jokes throughout the film, with Slattery delivering them with slimy aplomb. When Gil finds out that Andie and Seth are cooking the second night, he jokes like any omnivore dad might: “What are we going to have? Twigs?” When he finds his son nibbling on some expensive cheese, he says, “So I guess you turned cheesavore?”
Throughout the weekend, the characters learn a lot about themselves and why their relationships are what they are. Savelson’s theater roots show in a number of scenes with just dialogue between two of the characters: Gil and Andie bond while smoking a joint or two, and Seth takes out his resentment of his dad on Vicky. In Our Nature provides a snapshot of emotions that are stirred and the conflicts that arise between first and second families. There are no bad guys and good guys in this film, just damaged characters.
Thankfully, Savelson’s film isn’t a downer all the way through. There are moments of humor peppered throughout (and we wished there were more), from Seth trying to navigate out of a tight NYC parking space in the opening scene, to Gil’s mocking one-liners, to an incident with a bear rummaging for food at the cabin. And Jeremy Saulnier’s crisp cinematography does justice to the film’s stunning setting in upstate New York.
Yes, the pacing of In Our Nature is slow, and drags near the film’s halfway point, but the top-notch ensemble propels the film forward, adding complexity to the characters while leaving the over-the-top melodrama for Lifetime.
Director: Brian Savelson
Writer: Brian Savelson
Starring: Zach Gilford, Jena Malone, John Slattery, Gabrielle Union
Release Date: Dec. 7, 2012