Funny and disturbing in the best way, the comedy-drama “Austin Found” captures something beyond its story of a woman’s obsession with making her little daughter a beauty pageant winner. It details one specific pathology that, in the process, illuminates a general sickness, a spiritual vacuum in which the desire for fame and admiration replaces every other human value.
The tone is arch and satirical, but it’s also serious, a mix that’s exactly right for a movie saying two true things simultaneously: This is awful. This is absurd. A few generations ago, audiences would have dismissed a story like this as nonsensical, as too far-fetched to be believed. But we totally get it, which probably isn’t a good thing.
Linda Cardellini — wow, is she good here: scary, weirdly sympathetic, pathetic, powerful — is Leanne, a Texas wife and mother whose dream is to turn her daughter into a tiny beauty queen. The daughter complies, but reluctantly. She’s a studious type with a gift for the violin, but her mother fills her days with jazz dancing lessons. “Fiddle players” apparently never win beauty pageants.
Slowly, organically, Leanne’s backstory is revealed, that she was a high school mean girl and a beauty pageant contestant, with what looked like a glorious future ahead of her. She married a man who she thought had money, but the money dried up. As the movie starts, she finds herself desperate to pay for her daughter’s dancing lessons, but the credit cards are maxed out. That’s when she gets her million-dollar idea, to have her daughter kidnapped, figuring that the inevitable publicity will catapult them to book deals and fame.
The brilliance of “Austin Found” and of Cardellini’s performance is they don’t send up the skewed values that Leanne embodies. It would have been so easy, for example, to make the child beauty pageant into a grotesque lampoon and to make everyone connected with it ridiculous. But writer-director Will Raee and co-writer Brenna Graziano are not about dismissing Leanne or laughing at her. They’re about getting inside her mind and illuminating that sort of mentality.
Cardellini plays Leanne as a person of drive and force, who has been made dangerous through defects both in her character and in the world she grew up in. Just as she tells her daughter to act like an 11-year-old Marilyn Monroe, someone told Leanne that, too — perhaps an entire culture told her this. She is enslaved to a fantasy about what constitutes happiness and self-actualization, and it all has something to do with the admiration or envy of strangers. If she were younger, she’d be taking pictures of herself and posting them online every 10 minutes. Same illness, different manifestation.