Taking its cue from the Toddlers & Tiaras school of reality TV child exploitation, Will Raee’s misguided Austin Found uses the world of child beauty contests as an entry point to crassly judge the overbearing yet seemingly loving pageant mom at its center. This portrait of a former prom queen, Leanne (Linda Cardellini), struggling to come to terms with the mediocrity of her life sets itself up as a comedy of errors and a satire of the unquenchable American desire for fame. Yet rather than examine the psychological and socioeconomic factors that help create the cycle of abuse it takes so lightly, the film sets its sights on the easiest target, exposing its complacency in reveling in its characters’ collective stupidities.
Leanne begins feeling overwhelmed with the desire to improve her life after an embarrassing run-in with a former high school enemy, Crystal (Jaime Pressly), and her husband, Donald (Jon Daly), is passed over for a promotion. After noticing all the financial gains and press attention given to a family whose child was kidnapped, Leanne sees a potential way out her predicament: She schemes with her sleazy ex, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), and his sensitive ex-con friend, Jebidiah (Craig Robinson), to keep her daughter, Patty (Ursula Parker), holed up in Billy’s remote cabin for a month while she reaps the social and monetary rewards of her child being abducted. Unsurprisingly, Leanne’s plans begin to unravel as quickly as they’re conceived when Billy becomes increasingly suspicious of her commitment to leaving her husband for him.
Along with a shaky script that’s overly reliant on convenient and illogical character behavior and ham-fisted contrivances, Austin Found fails to strike a balance between its lighthearted admonishing of Leanne’s self-absorbed grandstanding and the dire consequences of her actions. But worst of all, aside from wasting the comical talents of Kristen Schaal as the bland reporter seeking to expose Leanne as a fraud, is how it mistakes its self-congratulatory mockery for meaningful satire. The film is borderline nihilistic in its perpetual mean-spiritedness, yet it offers only the shallowest of critiques with no insight into what drives its characters toward their acts of depravity.
The conspicuous means by which Raee stacks the deck against Leanne, the real victim of this story, is matched only by a moral grandstanding that seeks to condemn rather than understand the character’s decisions. The film delivers its message with a sarcastic vitriol that gives the audience license to feel superior to Leanne, and to take pleasure in the woman’s downfall without concern for the deeper problems that may have led to her making her admittedly horrible decisions. The filmmakers’ inability to root the broadness of their characterizations in something recognizably human ensures that Austin Found scans as little more than a hollow exercise in sadism.