“Austin Found” is a good example of how you should never judge a writer and/or director by past credits.
“Austin Found” director Will Raee and co-writer Brenna Graziano previously offered no evidence they could pull off a twisted tale of obsession with fame and fortune.
Raee’s major credit is as a producer of the reality magic show “Criss Angel Mindfreak,” and Graziano penned the script for the 2004 TV movie documentary “Alien Gods.” None of their work comes close to offering so much insight into real world fame and the lengths people will go to stay in the spotlight. It’s one of the better movies about murder, manipulation and celebrity since Gus Van Sant’s 1995 feature, “To Die For.”
To be fair, the director and writer get a big boost from Linda Cardellini, who embraces the evil ways of Leanne Miller, a former beauty pageant contestant who’s now a beauty pageant mom.
Leanne is running out of money to pay for her dream of making her 11-year-old daughter, Patty (Ursula Parker), a pageant queen. That desire comes entirely from Leanne’s passion to be a star and goes against her daughter’s very vocal negative opinions about competing.
Mom comes up with a plan to get the fame she so richly deserves. Leanne has watched how other parents have signed major book and film deals after their child was abducted, and she sets in motion a way to capitalize on that potential fortune.
It takes only a few flutters of her fake eyelashes, a toss of her out-of-date hairstyle and a couple of wiggles inside an outfit that looks like it was purchased at Hookers-R-Us to get her old high school flame, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), to agree to a fake kidnapping. She will arrange for Billy and his partner in the planned crime, Jebidiah (Craig Robinson), to come to her home, where she will have drugged her family. They will hold Patty for a month while Leanne works the news and entertainment circuit, building up enough notoriety to make them a fortune.
Cardellini slips from grieving mom to cold-hearted criminal with ease. Just like Nicole Kidman in “To Die For,” there’s a look of ambition in her eyes that makes this character have both an oddly caring side while also never leaving any questions about how no one is going to get in her way. It’s by far one of the best performances in Cardellini’s career.
Ulrich channels every high school hotshot who went on to a life of disappointment after graduation. He plays Billy with just enough instability to give the film a constant threat of danger.
The surprise performance comes from young Parker, who plays the most unorthodox beauty pageant contestant since Abigail Breslin in “Little Miss Sunshine.” She would rather be doing anything than prancing across a stage, including being kidnapped. Her scenes with Robinson have a real sweetness that Patty lacks at home.
As good as the film is, there are a few problems, mainly the lack of a consistent tone. Patrick Warburton’s performance as the local sheriff who is a frustrated actor creates some deadpan comedic moments. And Kristen Schall’s ambitious reporter fumbles between competent and comical. Even the cute name of the movie is a little too much.
Then the movie turns deeply dark, almost too dark before Raee and Graziano manage to find a way to win back the audience. The final scene is a great exclamation point to some very solid work by the cast and unexpected quality from the writers and director.
(At Screenland Tapcade.)
Not rated. Time: 1:47.