If it weren’t for dysfunctional relationships, independent films might never have any stories to tell. “In Our Nature” is the latest in a long line of small-scale films about children who don’t get along with their parents, and the terms both come to in the process of a shared experience that throws them together – in predictably unwitting fashion, of course. But solid performances from the central quartet of actors, including Zack Gilford, Jena Malone, John Slattery and Gabrielle Union elevate Brian Savelson’s debut as a writer and director despite its familiarity as not just a story but almost an entire cinematic subgenre.
Gilford (“Friday Night Lights”) and Malone (“Sucker Punch”) play Seth and Andie, a young couple from Brooklyn that drives up in the woods for a getaway in his family’s lake house. Shortly after they arrive, Seth’s dad Gil (Slattery) shows up with his girlfriend Vicky (Union) in tow, and neither is happy to see the other. But after a few tenuous negotiations brokered by their lady friends, Seth and Gil agree to cohabitate in the house for the weekend. Before long, however, old tensions between the two quickly re-emerge, even as their interactions among the group produce unexpectedly fruitful connections. As the prospect of reconciling long-held estrangement advances and retreats over the course of the weekend, the two men are forced to re-examine their past, both shared and individual, as they look to the ambitions and responsibilities they face in the future.
Notwithstanding the possibility (ok, inevitability) of a cathartic showdown between father and son from which both emerge a little happier, a little wiser, stories like this one are less a “bad” thing than a fairly conventional one: when done well, there are few more satisfying wish-fulfillment moments than when two people with long-held grudges get out their anger and move forward together, even (ok, especially) if they’re prefaced by the same annoying stuff that bugs all of us. Savelson creates behavioral pathologies for Seth and Gil that are both subtle and specific, but which express more about the dynamic of their relationship than an expository shouting match ever could. Gil is a type-A competitor and perfectionist while Seth is an artist who prizes sensitivity, so their first moments together are fraught with an immediate and effective tension that rumbles beneath every subsequent scene, just waiting to explode if given the right catalyst.
As those sparks happen in life, Savelson uncovers those moments of provocation in unexpected and naturalistic places. As Seth, Gilford never overplays the character’s bubbling resentment, but communicates his frustrations in smaller gestures that feel more reflective of the way people deal with problems in inescapable long-term relationships. Meanwhile, the deck is unfortunately stacked against Gil, primarily because the story is told largely from Seth’s point of view, but Slattery avoids making him too much of a villain, and occasionally finds real reasons for the audience to like him. Together, they’re authentic as father and son, and when that cathartic showdown does finally occur, both have done their jobs well enough that there’s a lot more sympathy for Gil – almost more than for Seth – than many will expect.
Malone and Union in a lesser movie would be window-dressing distractions from that main conflict, but Savelson does a great job of giving these female characters real dimensions and identities that make them suitable companions for their men. Acquiescing to gender roles a bit, both Andie and Vicky are nurturers, which largely accounts for their efforts to get the two men to work out their problems, but they also get to be proxies for the audience – moderators in their ongoing conflict who observe and evaluate each round to see who offended, who won, etc. Malone is reliably thoughtful as Andie, a young woman who responds to Seth’s sensitivity but who also discovers its source over the course of the weekend – and is quite frankly a little unprepared. As Vicky, on the other hand, Union proves that she’s one of the most under-utilized actresses in Hollywood, playing a therapist whose relationship with Gil is based on tolerant disinterest in his demanding behavior, who slowly begins to recognize how overbearing he can be – and starts to point that out to him.
Because the characters are so well-rendered, by the time Gil and Seth get into their climactic shouting match, you almost don’t want to see it, but oddly, after it happens there’s maybe not quite enough of a pay off. Has there been a transference of culpability, an atonement, a reconciliation? Small gestures suggest that it’s so – and suffice it to say that the same thing happening in the real world seldom produces big results. But to watch a story where we simply understand these characters without seeing them truly evolve, or move towards an evolution, proves to be slightly disappointing, if perhaps more realistic to real life. In which case, “In Our Nature” is as prophetic as it is provocative, exploring dysfunction, in a recognizable but no less satisfying way. [B]