The concept that drives the indie comedy Second Nature—a world where men act like women and vice versa—is not a new one. Gender roles as a springboard for comedy date all the way back to Lysistrata. Nicholas Ray’s excellent western classic Johnny Guitar plays with the idea as well. Gender role expectations have underpinned media events from lesser seasons of Survivor to Billie Jean King’s famous duel with Bobby Riggs. An early episode of Sliders, “The Weaker Sex,” has a nearly identical plot. But Second Nature reminded me of something we film critics should always remember: the quality of a story doesn’t come from new ideas… but the way it uses the old ideas.
The film opens in “our” world, where we meet our gender emissaries: Amanda Maxwell (Collette Wolfe), an office worker benighted by feelings of inferiority, and her chauvinistic blowhard of a boss, Bret Johnson (Sam Huntington). The death of the mayor of their town of Louisburg plunges the two into a desperate mayoral race. A mishap involving an antique mirror, lightning, and the local Hooters (even funnier than it sounds) throws these two into a parallel universe where gender roles work in reverse. Louisburg has become… Ellensburg (filming took place in Ellensburg, Washington). Women swear and catcall and “womansplain”; men wear makeup and fret over their perceived attractiveness. With a week before the election, Bret and Amanda have to figure out how to get back. Amanda, who has pushed up against glass ceilings all her life and now has societal privilege on her side, has to decide if she wants to go back.
Second Nature benefits from the long-lived truism that comedy doesn’t depend on budget. Director Michael Cross spent years honing the concept, and that shows in the final product better than any A-list celebrities or CGI talking animals ever could. The film has the obligatory gender-reversal sight gags, but the laughs come more from funny characters than funny lines. You’ll know how it ends in advance, but the endearing characterization makes the journey there into a ride worth taking. The cast clearly had fun making the movie, but not in that Cannonball Run 2 way where everyone knew they stood to make a quick buck shitting out another turkey.
Anyone who knows anything about this year’s Ghostbusters can see that women still face an uphill battle in proving their comedy chops to Hollywood and the general public. So it speaks well of Cross that Second Nature gives the meatiest comedy roles to women; the comediennes ultimately make the film. Maxwell’s frustration over her unrecognized competence makes her character an effective but neurotic straight-woman in the tradition of Sweet Dee from Always Sunny or Lindsay Bluth-Fünke from Arrested Development. Amanda’s grandmother Estelle Otto (Carolyn Cox) becomes something between Roseanne and everyone’s crustiest grandfather, with a mouth that would make a sailor blush and a prostitute cringe. Mary Bayley plays Marge, the Gary Johnson of the election (read: the crazy distant-third). Casandra Sjostrom plays Penny, a striking redhead with whom Bret had a casual relationship, only for it to come back to bite him in Ellensburg, where she’s become a chauvinistic sheriff. Amanda’s girly-girl best friend Natalie (Carollani Sandberg) becomes “Nat,” an insensitive, horny butch and the funniest character of all.
As a lighthearted comedy, Second Nature doesn’t delve into the sociopolitical dynamics of gender quite like I would have wished. The film has few characters of color and only one trans character, who only gets seconds of screen-time. The script misses golden opportunities to explore trans issues, gay/lesbian issues, and intersectionality. But I can’t fault the film for what it isn’t. To its credit, the plot’s fulcrum rests on issues of male fragility, toxic masculinity, and the corrupting effect of privilege. A subplot has a real-estate developer offer Amanda a kickback, which she almost accepts because the other world’s “female privilege” has intoxicated her. In this way, the film comes to the same conclusion as the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments: any power tends to corrupt, even the intangible kind.
The modest budget belies the beautiful, lush cinematography. Cinematographer Michael Boydstun brings out everything beautiful about the real-life Ellensburg, Washington. If you’ll allow me a personal note, I live nearby, and frankly, I always dismissed the town as a boring way-point in the vast Columbia Basin, made for motorists who had to find a spot to take a leak and buy potato chips. But Cross’s and Boydstun’s movie magic induced me to see the verdurous, lively Ellensburg I’d never noticed. Like The Station Agent or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the setting comes to feel alive and familiar, a place where we’d all want to live if we could.
I can’t call Second Nature a perfect film, but it certainly makes for a good time. The film has endearing characterization and a lot of heart. It doesn’t explore its ideas to the fullest, but Cross’s feminism shines through. In a serendipitous twist, this film presages the recently-ended presidential election: misogynistic, self-absorbed prig versus hyper-qualified woman. But don’t worry; nothing from Second Nature will depress you nearly as much as anything from the election. Watch this in the theater if you get the chance! Failing that, buy it when it comes out on video, then throw it at the next asshole who claims women aren’t funny.
Integrity Note: After seeing the film but before writing this review, the author, Jordan Saïd, corresponded with director Michael Cross and producer Nicholas Gyeney. Neither had any input on the content of this review or viewed this article prior to publication. The author has neither solicited nor received any material compensation. Front Row Central does not alter its content for material gain. But feel free to give us money anyway! Whenever you want!Liked This? Share It!