Film Review: In Our Nature

By focusing on only four characters—an estranged father and son and their respective girlfriends—writer-director Brian Savelson generally eschews emotional fireworks to create this small and intimate study of how difficult it is to repair b

It’s nigh impossible for a first-time writer-director to make a perfect film, and Brian Savelson’s In Our Nature is no exception.

First of all, a couple of caveats: Savelson’s career began in the theatre, and it shows; the dramatic device of trapping four characters on one set for a limited time is better suited to the stage than the roving eye of a movie camera. And the comings and goings and pairings-off of the characters here are way too stagey and over-choreographed. That said, the intimacy of the situation does give the actors plenty of time and space to reveal the deeply imbedded personality quirks that motivate them—and can sometimes destroy them. Fortunately, Savelson chose performers who are experts at close-up communication and, interestingly, all of them made career breakthroughs on the intimate, close-up medium of television.

The film’s starring foursome includes Zach Gilford (from TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) as the 30-year-old Seth, who takes his bubbly girlfriend Andie (Jena Malone of “Hatfelds & McCoys”) to his family’s country house for a romantic weekend—during which he hopes to propose. Any chance for romance goes out the window, though, with the unexpected arrival of Seth’s long-divorced dad, Gil (the always charismatic John Slattery of “Mad Men”) and his girfriend Vicky, played by Gabrielle Union, a veteran of several TV series before moving on to films like Bring It On and Think Like a Man.

From the outset, we learn that Seth is not a very communicative guy, as he’s never told Andie that the family “cabin” he’s mentioned is actually a large house next to a pond on a sizeable piece of wooded land in upstate New York. Then, when Gil shows up with his girlfriend, it’s clear that neither father nor son has told the other of his weekend plans—and, in fact, neither knew that the other even had a girlfriend. Which, of course, doesn’t sit well with Andie or Vicky. Some very awkward moments ensue, until Seth volunteers to take Andie back to the city so Gil and Vicki can have their weekend alone.

The two women, however, are quick to figure out that there’s more at stake here than allowing either couple to enjoy a private love nest. Subtly and without actually discussing it, Andie and Vicky take on the task of healing the deep emotional rift between the thin-skinned Seth and his demanding and impatient father. It isn’t easy, for the estrangement between the two has gone on so long they’ve literally lost track of how it all began. But anger and frustration and loss cannot be buried forever, and to their great credit, Slattery and Gilford vividly depict the psychic pain of this kind of familial estrangement, and they’re equally good at showing surprise and delight at suddenly seeing a loved one in a new light.

Although it may not sound like it, In Our Nature is generously sprinkled with humor—as when Gil cannot fathom how anyone related to him could become a vegan. And Slattery has his best comic moment when he shares a joint with Andie—only to discover that today’s marijuana is a lot more powerful than the kind he smoked 35 years ago. All the characters in In Our Nature learn something new, of course, and by the film’s end, Gil and Seth have made the most meaningful discovery of all: Like life itself, reconciliation is a process.