SXSW Film Review – Nature Calls
Some filmmakers seem destined for success. For whatever reason, they seem to have caught the current zeitgeist of filmmaking. Lynn Shelton is on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream, as are the Duplass brothers. While he might not be quite there yet, Todd Rohal seems to be on that same fast track, and that can be seen with his latest film, Nature Calls.
Nature Calls, not to be confused with the Ace Ventura film of a similar name, is inspired by Rohal’s roots as a Boy Scout, when his scoutmasters faked a death as part of a first aid test. The story follows Scout leader Randy (Patton Oswalt), who is taking over the troop his father founded many years ago. Randy still believes in the Scouts, despite his brother Kirk’s (Johnny Knoxville) disdain for the organization. As the numbers in the troop dwindle, Randy has one last-ditch idea for how to inspire the kids…unfortunately, that includes kidnapping the kids, including Kirk’s adopted son, Dwande (Thiecoura Cissoko). This just further angers Kirk, who sets off in pursuit, bringing along his store’s security guard, Gentry (Rob Riggle) and frustrated parent Caldwell (Patrice O’Neal).
Whether you like his work or not, Rohal seems to be a force to be reckoned with. His directorial debut, The Guatemalan Handshake, won the jury special award for best film at Slamdance in 2006, and his second film, The Catechism Cataclysm (which starred Stevie Little and was produced by Danny McBride), premiered at Sundance, despite receiving mixed reviews. If you include his short films, it seems as if every award his projects have been nominated for, he has won. With each film, his scale continues to grow, in terms of budget and talent that are interested in working with him. His personal touch to his projects seems to be what is attracting people in film towards him, as well as cultivating a cult audience. Nature Calls could be a real step towards the mainstream and could mark a turning point in his career.
This film is going to split people, and I’ve already talked to people on both sides. Some people will look it as a slapstick comedy that pushes the borders of good taste, and some will look it as a comedy that crosses the line while it pokes fun at things like the Boy Scouts and religion. While I can see both perspectives, I personally fell into the former group, as I don’t think the film intentionally angers, and was rather just good-natured humor. The fact that Rohal himself was a Boy Scout makes me feel there is a true sense of earnestness towards the organization and the film isn’t meant as an insult.
One of the themes that I thought was most interesting in the film is the discussion of the place the Boy Scouts have in modern society. This idea is raised as part of one of the overarching plot points through the battle between Randy and Kirk, with the version of the Scouts in the film acting as a mechanism for the rivalry between the men. Their rivalry presents both sides of the discussion of whether the institution is archaic and irrelevant in modern society or if it still holds a place of use and value.
It is somewhat hard to look at a film like this and talk about the acting. Everyone is so over the top and outrageous that perhaps a bit of the nuance in acting is lost. That being said, it is a funny movie, though much of that is from shock value. In terms of the laughs-per-minute scale, the top award probably goes to Rob Riggle and Patrice O’Neal, forming an unlikely pair. Their chemistry is fun, but unfortunately their roles are sidetracked during the storyline and aren’t given that much screen time. It is hard to not watch this movie and think of Patrice O’Neal’s death; he displays great comedic skills and it was nice to see the filmmakers dedicate the movie to him.
The character with the greatest arc is Randy, as would be expected. He is dealing with the loss of his troop, his rivalry with his brother, and his efforts to impress his father. That sounds like a pretty good character arc, except that it is largely kept pretty shallow for comedy and not really delved into. Still, Patton Oswalt continues to grow as an actor (this follows excellent performances in films such as Big Fan and Young Adult), so he still gives the character quite a bit of heart. If there is a disappointment, it might be Johnny Knoxville. I’m not sure if it was from the story or the directing, but his character is so manic and over the top it is hard to feel empathetic towards him when the time comes for it. When that is your second biggest character in the movie, that can be a bit of a problem.
There are a lot of laughs in Nature Calls, but for me it wasn’t consistent enough to love. I wish the actors had just a bit more material to work with. Still, I’ll be keeping my eyes on Rohal going forward; this won’t be the last we see of him.
Final Grade: B-