Once in a while I wish I had a more literary mind. When I write, it’s pretty direct and while I used to attempt subtext I’ve pretty much given up on it at this point – too much effort for too little payoff. But that’s for my writing, where no marks are given for artistry. All that matters is the end result.
Whereas for Maya (Lena Olin), the protagonist in A Critically Endangered Species, artistry is all that matters. She’s a very successful writer, possibly too successful in that she has decided her best work is behind her and she will kill herself rather than crank out any more mediocre books. Her last project is to select a young male writer to inherit everything and safeguard her work after her death.
She holds tryouts that inevitably include detailed examinations of the applicants’ work, and with one notable exception end in sex. The field is quickly narrowed to two finalists, a showdown between intellectual and sexual appeal. For Maya’s part, she takes pleasure in sex but she obviously does not get pleasure or happiness from anything else, and sees no value in her life aside from her work. The beautiful but muted shots of northern California are a good match for Maya’s melancholy state of being.
Which candidate wins is incidental. The process is what matters. Just as incidental is the fact of Maya’s imminent suicide. Refreshingly, this is not a moral examination of Maya’s choice. The focus of the movie is the competition between two very different suitors and the discussions between them about some very interesting writing. The movie is extremely well-written and writers Zachary Cotler and Magdelena Zyzak deserve particular praise for producing so many stylistically different pieces of poetry for the applicants to read and defend against Maya’s criticism. The acting is spot-on as well, giving us main characters that are both well-written and well-executed.
A Critically Endangered Species is heavily intellectual and took less than five minutes to go over my head as far as literary analysis goes. Even so, it was extremely interesting to take in the poetry and the discussions that followed each piece. This is a different sort of movie than I’m used to, and while I would have found the difference refreshing on its own, the quiet excellence of this film is what really made a lasting impression. Added to that, if you have more than a passing interest in literature (which for me basically starts and ends with comic books), then A Critically Endangered Species is not only a good movie, it’s an intricate discussion piece that should rub you in a few different ways at once. Which may be what Maya was searching for all along.