In the last seven years or so, the Northwest film industry’s become as strong a purveyor of quality mainstream genre cinema as any regional film scene in the country. Homegrown action movies, horror films and sci-fi adventures have surfaced in recent years, sharing the variety—and, in their own humble way, the commercial instincts—driving all of the best mainstream movies currently inhabiting theaters, streaming services and VOD.
Surprisingly, amidst this burgeoning variety of content, we haven’t seen a lot of regional filmmakers tackling audience-pleasing farces—high-concept, unpretentious comedies that could play in a multiplex as readily as an indie film festival. Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising. As the old adage goes: Dying is easy, comedy is hard.
That makes the very existence of Second Nature, Seattle-based writer/producer/director Michael Cross’s feature debut, pretty rare. And rarer still, Cross and his nearly all-PNW cast and crew actually pull it off.
If High-Concept Movie Comedy were a formal university course, Second Nature would easily make it into the textbook. The small town of Louisburg loses its mayor in a car accident, so compassionate, level-headed Amanda (Collette Wolfe) and boorish, sexist Bret (Sam Huntington) each set their eyes on filling the mayor’s shoes.
Due to a set of quintessentially High-Concept Movie Comedy circumstances, the rivals are transported to a parallel universe where the roles and societal dominance of women and men are completely flipped (Louisburg becomes Ellensburg, and yes, the film was shot on location there). Once each gets a taste of how the other half lives, though, getting back to so-called normalcy may not be so straightforward.
It’s the battle of the sexes, writ in broad Bizarro World letters, and to be honest, the first 10 minutes feel a little wobbly. Cross and his fellow screenwriters J.C. Ford and Edi Zanadache (a woman and man, respectively) veer a little too sharply between gentle wryness and broad goofiness during the initial setup.
Happily, once the central conceit kicks in and the two protagonists are neck-deep in this alternate world, Second Nature gets seriously funny. There is nothing new under the sun here, but it’s all in the execution, with the script getting sharper and funnier as it goes. Cross shows a real knack for creating a consistent pocket universe, and he gives his actors the leverage to really throw themselves into their roles full-force.
A comedy this light (in a good way) floats or falls on the strength of its leads, and Second Nature’s central duo really knocks it out of the park. Both have popped up in supporting roles in big-time Hollywood projects—Wolfe made a strong impression in the Hot Tub Time Machine movies, and Huntington’s shown up in everything from Detroit Rock City to Superman Returns. This is a rare lead turn for both, and they make the most of it.
Wolfe is a real comic find. Her bemused expressiveness, smarts, and engaging naturalness totally anchor the parade of absurdities. And Huntington takes on the nigh-impossible task of making the borderline-insufferable Bret charming, human, and funny as hell—an utter asshole who’s still likable enough for you to root for his redemption.
Second Nature’s supporting cast is a smorgasbord of great local talent. Local stage vet Carolyn Cox is pitch perfect as Amanda’s grandma, flipping seamlessly between gentle wisdom in the real world and uproarious saltiness in the alternate one. Seattle veteran Carollani Sandberg, meantime, makes for one howlingly funny drinking buddy in Bizarro Ellensburg.
It’s important to emphasize that this is a decidedly feather-light farce on its face. Its characters only skew so deep, and much of it is more functional than cinematic. But within its self-set boundaries, this film could hardly work better. The deft touch even allows a few salient (if not earth-shaking) bits of social commentary to peek through.
Cross also contrasts the silliness with an open-hearted good nature that never gets too soggy, a sensibility directly descended (accidentally or otherwise) from masters of the form like Preston Sturges and Frank Capra. No, Cross isn’t in that league yet, but the rough draft of that blueprint is undeniably sketched out in this debut.
Second Nature opens tonight, Friday, Sept. 8, at the Ark Lodge Cinemas. Tickets here.