The film A Critically Endangered Species is a showcase for actor Lena Olin. It’s her movie and ultimately ends up being little more than a character study, though when Olin is onscreen, it’s hard to complain.
Olin plays Maya Dardel, a writer who announces during a live radio interview that she’s planning to kill herself and is looking for a young writer to be her heir and literary executor. She only wants young men because she doesn’t like women writers and interrogates a series of young men who arrive at her house. She tears apart their writing, their preconceived notions, their way of thinking. She demands oral sex from each of them. Meanwhile she’s tending to hummingbirds and drinking with her neighbor played by Rosanna Arquette.
The film gives Olin a chance to shine because so often she plays characters who are tightly coiled springs, and though her intelligence is clear from her eyes, exactly what she’ll do when she lets loose is often uncertain. To watch her onscreen in The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Enemies: A Love Story or Romeo is Bleeding or her turn on the series Alias, the characters around her are uncertain what to make of her. How much is she manipulating them? Is it sex she wants? Or something else? What is her capacity for violence? This uncertainty can be unnerving for characters onscreen, but is amazing to watch, and here given the chance to do that again, Olin throws herself into the role.
“Olin plays the character with such complexity and fierceness that whenever she’s not on screen, or not the focus, the film drifts…”
When I described the film as a character piece, the shortcoming is that the film presents the character as she is at that moment and rarely shows us a reason for what she’s doing, or offers a context for her actions. There are hints, but they never amount to a satisfactory explanation. For example she is explaining that she has written another novel, which in the current state of publishing would only net her $100,000, but if she’s dead, the book could probably fetch one million. Is it about money? Is it about the vulgarities and shortcomings of the current state of publishing and literature? Does she hate what she’s writing now? Is she even writing anymore? We never see her write.
Or maybe she just needs prozac. It’s never quite clear.
The same issues plague her hunt for an heir and literary executor. Is she searching for a like-minded writer? A good writer? Something else? It’s never explained, though when she narrows it down to two, she tells the loser than the winner is a much better writer.
Olin meets with a few young men and I kept thinking that none of them were that impressive. She interrogates them and demands sex, she toys with them, forcing them to jump through intellectual hoops, and yet, I wondered if the filmmakers were commenting on what they think of the state of contemporary American literature and its writers. Which would make the film not just narratively unsatisfying, but depressing to boot.
Olin’s character said at one point, “I have no one at all…the only thing that matters to me are the books I wrote years ago. That’s it. That’s all I care about.” And yet that sentiment feels missing from so much of the film, and leads to so many other questions. Like why she would chose some unknown young writer to handle everything if that’s really all she cares about. If she lives isolated as she does, then she do so for art or did she do so for another reason? Olin crafts a fully realized character in this moment, but the film never really explains who she is or how she got to this place.
Again without a context it’s problematic to understand exactly what’s happening and why. Olin plays the character with such complexity and fierceness that whenever she’s not on screen, or not the focus, the film drifts. The other actors and characters aren’t quite interesting enough to hold my attention. Olin gives the film her all and she is electrifying. The film is worth watching for her performance and should serve as a reminder that she should be working as much as she wants to. The narrative, though, lets her down.
A Critically Endangered Species (2017): Written and directed by Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak / Stars: Lena Olin, Nathan Keyes, Rosanna Arquette
2.5 out of 5 stars
A Critically Endangered Species screens at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.