Acerbic isn’t a strong enough word to explain the singular attitude and outlook of author Maya Dardel. The gravelly-voiced has-been (well, maybe) is first introduced to the audience of Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak’s “A Critically Endangered Species” by way of a rambling NPR interview that caps off with Maya (an electric Lena Olin) announcing her intention to off herself, and that’s before the opening credits are even over. Maya is plain-spoken about her plan, only really mentioning it to tout her desire to find an heir and executor to take over her life and work (and money and house and fame and whatever else she has) after she does the deed.
Sarcastic, biting, and wholly unsentimental, Maya explains that “death’s lucrative” and she’s simply eager to get her affairs in order before shuffling off this mortal coil. She’s looking for a male author to prove his mettle before she hands him the keys to her life — “women need not apply, because I don’t like women’s writing” — and that’s that. Maya voices her intentions with all the emotion of someone ordering a Big Mac at a drive-thru, all the attention of someone picking a piece of lint off a sweater. It doesn’t matter to her.
Except, of course, it does. “A Critically Endangered Species” is not a feel-good story about discovering joy at the end of one’s life, but a one-woman character study that gets more ambiguous as it moves along. Olin, at turns daringly open and frustratingly restrained, makes Maya entirely her own, the focal point and reason for the film itself.
As Maya cycles through the process of interviewing potential heirs, alternately asking them to honestly appraise their own work and having them please her sexually, her ultimate end-game becomes less and less discernible. Although it’s unclear what she’s looking for — to humiliate her applicants, to further flex her prodigious talents, to find meaning at the end of her life, to simply get her rocks off — Olin is so spell-binding in the role it nearly doesn’t matter, just watching her is treat enough.
Cotler and Zyzak embrace a repetitive narrative style for the film’s first half, before landing on a pair of dueling applicants to focus not just the story but the ways in which Maya unveils more of herself. As Maya revels in playing her suitors off each other — including a smoothie Alexander Koch and an achingly hangdog Nathan Keyes — the film picks up steam, chugging forward into a powerful third act explosion that resets everything while also cementing some of Maya’s earliest intentions.
Strikingly lensed by cinematographer Patrick Scola, the film’s muted color palette and naturalistic lighting ground the feature in a credible world even as Cotler and Zyzak place their characters in increasingly off-kilter locales (a boat in the middle of a field, a tea party that takes place in a forest). By the film’s final moments, both Maya and the film have given themselves over to a kind of manic quality that plays up the film’s more off-kilter elements while never slipping into anything inauthentic.
The ever-wry Maya has little time for end-of-life platitudes and, around the film’s mid-point, pointedly scoffs at the idea that there is some sort of “ghostly profundity” swinging towards her, arguing that nothing is profound and there are no ghosts in her life. She’s wrong about that. Within the film’s powerful final moments, those ghosts unmask themselves gorgeously, and Maya follows suit.
“A Critically Endangered Species” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.