In ‘Endangered Species,’ a dysfunctional American family goes bananas in Africa
There’s nothing quite so edifying in the outdoor adventure subgenre as the struggle of stranded travelers to stay alive in an unforgiving wilderness. On top of that proposition in some movies is the perverse idea that the lost ones somehow deserve to have a rough time, either due to their moral failings, their lack of character or simply because they’re too foolish to be allowed to go unpunished. The latter qualifier is up front and obvious in M.J. Bassett’s Endangered Species, the reasonably thoughtful, moderately exciting story of the Halsey family and their scary trip to East Africa.
Upon their arrival in Kenya for their “safari” vacation, the Halseys aren’t quite prepared to get along in an unfamiliar, potentially threatening environment—in fact, they’re not even ready to get along with each other. At the head of the American fivesome is Jack (Philip Winchester), a nervous businessman with plenty to be worried about. Jack has just been demoted from his oil-industry job, but hasn’t gotten around to telling anyone in the family about it—he’s evidently been saving that information for a talk around the campfire.
Jack’s skittish wife Lauren (Rebecca Romijn) has a pleasant enough personality, although she’s prone to worrying out loud about her family. Lauren suffers from diabetic ketoacidosis and cannot venture very far from her insulin, but that doesn’t prevent her eager willingness to get up close and personal with wild animals at the national park they’re heading to. Their post-adolescent daughter Zoe (Isabel Bassett, the director’s daughter) is vaguely enthused about the upcoming trek—think of the selfies!—but devotes most of her attention to her boyfriend Billy (Chris Fisher), a hang-loose stoner along for the ride.
In the time-honored manner of big sceen family follies, Zoe and her younger brother Noah (Michael Johnston) quarrel with each other incessantly. One might expect them to save their energy for unexpected events in a country filled with rhinos, hyenas, leopards and similar beasties—including armed and dangerous poachers—but that would be unrealistic. It’s the Halseys versus the inhabitants of the arid Kenyan lowlands. Impatient dad Jack makes the mistake of gunning his truck’s engine and storming out of the animal park’s newcomer process without bothering to register, and off they go.
So we’ve got a squeamish, irresponsible father, a docile suburban-style mother, their two spoiled offspring and a know-it-all hippie, crammed into a rent-a-van, cameras cocked and ready, merrily chattering to each other in the desert while being sized up by predators. The family clearly didn’t do their homework, but what could possibly go wrong? It’s tempting, at first, to anticipate that the Halseys’ African ordeal might fall into the “Spank the Silly Whiteys” folder. They’re certainly asking for some sort of comeuppance.
Filmmaker Bassett, a transgendered UK native who photographed wildlife before helming a string of military-themed TV thrillers, co-wrote the screenplay with their actor daughter Isabel, from a story by Paul Chronnell. In its stressful portrait of this nightmare Third World holiday, the narrative neatly divides its thrust between ferocious animal violence and a fairly standard family-style relationship drama, complete with all the usual clichés. The Halseys say something naively dumb every 15 seconds, and Jack never leaves off sermonizing, even in the face of death. In the third quarter, when our minds begin to wander, we begin to kill time by imagining how two radically different directors—Noah Baumbach and Taylor Sheridan, for instance—might handle the family’s whiny bickering. Jack is the worst offender on that score. For his maudlin “I’m so sorry” farewell speech alone, he deserves to camp out overnight on an anthill.
Nevertheless, an on-screen graphic makes the movie’s ultimate message clear. The illegal wildlife trade is an annual $24 billion business, and it must be stopped. Just don’t send this particular family to do it.
In theaters and streaming on May 28.