Think of a petunia and your mind likely conjures a very specific type of flower, but “petunia” is actually a genus made up of 35 distinct variations of plant. For example, a quick check of Wikipedia reveals that P. axillaris “bears night-fragrant, buff-white blossoms with long, thin tubes and somewhat flattened openings,” while P. integrifolia “has a somewhat weedy habit, spreading stems with upright tips, and small lavender to purple flowers.”
That same variation can be found in the members of the titular family at the center of the film Petunia. Yes, these people are related, but each individual brings their own assortment of bad decisions, personal psychosis and mental illness to the dinner table. Sometimes it seems all they have in common is a last name.
Start with Charlie (Tobias Segal), a gay 20-something who finds the prospect of romantic love so painful that he’s taken a vow of celibacy and snaps a rubber band around his wrist whenever temptation strikes. Charlie has two brothers, Adrian (Jimmy Heck), a sex addict/artist who specializes in vagina paintings starring his many hookups, and Michael (American Pie’s Eddie Kaye Thomas), a comparatively normal guy who nonetheless possesses a drama queen streak and flair for the dramatic.
Petunia opens at Michael’s wedding to Vivian (Thora Birch), and you sense right away that this is a doomed marriage. It’s here that we meet the family, including the Petunia parents, Felecia (Christine Lahti) and Percy (David Rasche), psychotherapists who are just as fucked up as their kids, and Vivian’s cousin George (Michael Urie), who seems like the perfect match for Charlie (turns out they even live in the same building), but proves to have a host of issues all his own.
There are multiple ways to attack material like this, and director Ash Christian chooses to keep Petunia a comedy instead of indulging in the gritty drama that these characters could allow for. It’s a good call, as Petunia is often hilarious, and revels in a frankness that’s common for Indie audiences but generally unheard of in mainstream Hollywood productions. Are there moments that sell out these characters and their problems for some easy entertainment? Yes, especially toward the end, when the many messy plot strands are neatly and rather unrealistically tied up — but the movie’s heart is in the right place.
It’s the performances more than subject matter that separate Petunia from average comedies. Christine Lahti (best known from ’90s TV hit Chicago Hope) does excellent work as Mother Petunia, taking scenes that could play as farce (asking her celibate son’s friend to “date rape” him, for example) and making it seem genuine and funny. Tobias Segal is also winning as long-suffering Charlie, creating a character that’s easy to identify with and gives the film a solid center. Urie, Rasche, Birch (who also produced) and Thomas are all solid in support, as is Brittany Snow, who makes a real impression in a role that I have said nothing about to avoid spoiling one of the film’s better surprises.
Petunia was one of the “Best of the Fest” winners at last year’s Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and is playing one night only, this Thurs., Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. at the Muvico Baywalk. The film may see a wider release in the spring, though it’s hard to say if it will ever hit the Bay area again. Why risk missing it? Check it out this Thursday, or possibly lose out on seeing one of the more distinctive comedies of the last year.