FANTASTIC FEST 2016: ZOOLOGY is an Interesting Tail With a Muddled Message

by Jon Partridge

Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest is the largest genre film festival in the U.S., specializing in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain fantastic movies from all around the world. They feature world, national and regional premieres of new, up-and-coming genre films. It is held each year at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. For more info, visit

Being unique is either a blessing or a curse. Some have a talent or an ability that is embraced and revered in society, some have traits that make them pariahs. Some things that set us apart are behavioral, some physical. In this latest effort from Russian director Ivan Tverdovsky, his lead is very much the latter, in both respects.

Natasha is a lonely soul, working a monotonous administrative job for a local zoo in a small Russian town. Her co-workers either ignore, or bully her. A spinster life, living with her God-fearing mother, her only solace is found with the animals which she helps care for. One day, she finds she had started to grow a tail, an appendage to her life that brings about a great change. Her Doctor seems unconcerned, but sends her for an X-ray, whete she encounters radiologist, Peter (Dmitri Groshev) a kind man, especially in contrast to the other people in Natasha’s life, and even more surprisingly, someone unphased by the tail. They begin a friendship that grows deeper, one that begins to shakes up her attitude and life.

Zoology is a cold film, all greys and blues, drained of life which only serves to heighten Natasha as she comes alive. She’s even mocked for daring to wear a more vibrant outfit. Residing in a a community of spiteful gossips, hiding away her secret, further restraint within her already meek existence, her transition from dowdy spinster to outgoing, confident woman is wonderful to behold and entirely down tot he performance of Natalya Pavlenkova. Its moving, nuanced work which elicits a deep empathy for the character. From small moments of defiance to the full liberated joy as she dances in a nightclub, Pavlenkova is a marvel. It’s a film about growth, not just the vestigial kind.

She embodies a rebellion against a regime of conformity, something synonymous with Russia, where suppressive tactics against opinion and lifestyle choices is forcing their artists to express themselves through their work. Despite concealing the tail, there are sightings of it sparking fears of a witch that will spread disease spreads within the community, a rumor spread by people such as her religious mother who starts tagging their apartment with crosses against the rumored evil within their midst. It’s not just the Church that bears scrutiny, people who prey on the downtrodden, charlatans such as fortune tellers are critiqued. Zoology even tackles the ideas of whether someone is truly accepting a difference or just fetishizing it. The tail is a smart metaphor but one that is not executed as well as it could have been.

Where Zoology falters is in it’s own confusion over it’s message. It’s the relationship that seems to serve as the catalyst for change in Natasha, shifting away from the idea that what makes her different is something she embraces. It takes another person’s interest and approval to break her out of her shell more than her own impetus. Even the final scene seems to rejecting the option of being different, undermining some of her journey and ending the film on a more cynical note.

Zoology is a film imbued with bleakness, in terms of aesthetic and humor, but with one shining light, courtesy of a captivating performance from Pavlenkova. There are aspects of the tail (sorry) that will resonate with many, an outsider rebelling against society, but rather then championing variety and it’s embrace, it shows how a display of kindness can make a world of change, while driving home the need for it to be genuine. It’s a shame the message here is so muddled, it undermines the impact it could have had.

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