San Antonio Director Draws On Own Experience For Teen Pregnancy Drama
“I don’t think that Petting Zoo could have been shot anywhere except for San Antonio,” says Micah Magee, director of the new feature film that made its North American debut at Austin’s South By Southwest Film Festival. “It has a really unique culture.”
Petting Zoo is about a young, smart and hard-working high school senior from a lower class background. An unplanned pregnancy alters the course of her life. It’s a story line that Magee knows intimately.
“I was a pregnant teen in San Antonio,” Magee explains (she's now a mother of three). Commenting again on the culture of the city, she says, “I think there’s a real cultural acceptance of [teen pregnancy] that there isn’t in other places. You have an opportunity to de-dramatize and de-politicize some of the experience of teen pregnancy.”
Still, Magee adds, “there’s a socio-economic construct that goes into people having babies really young.” She takes a moment to fetch a toy for her 6-moth-old, joining her for the interview [listen to the audio link above] and continues, “I feel like a lot of times, ‘dealing’ with teen pregnancy is dealing with these young women as girls who made a mistake, or people who’ve done something wrong, and they’re going to be a drain on society. But if given an opportunity, and adequate child care, all these ladies could be great benefits to society.”
For Petting Zoo, Magee opened a casting call in Texas that wound up doubling as continuing research for the film. A large percentage of the people that auditioned to be in the movie were teen moms themselves. She eventually cast Devon Keller, a Clark High School graduate, in the lead role of Layla.
Despite the teen pregnancy angle, Magee says the film is only tangentially about that issue. Without revealing a major plot point, Petting Zoo is more about how life “takes you one way when you think you were going another way.”
Layla, although a bright student, is nevertheless aimless and emotionally adrift.
“Being a teen is like being in the back seat of a car,” Magee muses. “At some point, and maybe it’s the point of growing up, you think ‘oh I could actually get out of this car and do something else!’ Or I could start driving, and that would be extremely exciting!”
Magee eventually left Texas to study film in Germany, which is where she lives now. Observing the city as she comes home to San Antonio for this film, she praises the SA2020 movement, and the progress made toward more acceptance of sex education. With Petting Zoo, Magee says she hopes the film can change people’s attitude toward teenage moms.
“Film is one of these rare opportunities to create empathy between people who don’t know each other.”
Petting Zoo debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in January, premiered in America at the SXSW Film Festival, and has already received an ecstatic review from the industry publication Variety, and screened for a hometown crowd this week in San Antonio. Magee says she has her fingers crossed for wider distribution of the film later this year.