The Unforeseen: Smart, Beautiful Sundance Documentary Explores Residential Growth


Though it draws from a rich cast of Austin, TX characters, Laura Dunn's The Unforeseen could have been set just about anywhere in the U.S. Most of us know what it's like to see residential real estate development radically transform the landscape we have always known.

For me, this happened when what was a rural community became incorporated as various suburbs north of Denver, CO in the eighties. My mother and I eventually lived in a new, dysfunctional development called "Hunter's Glen" complete with a nitrate-rich golf course, pool, and a "marina" on a shallow, stinking, algae-covered "lake." Poor planning meant that to leave our glen for another (you know -- when occasionally needing a break from hunting the few remaining prairie dogs and rabbits) necessitated a car. The developments didn't intersect, there was no mass transit, and we had to drive to a mission-style mini mall to meet any consumer need. Building stopped during the recession and never picked up during our Glen time. On a return trip, however, I saw that the vacant field outside our back windows, with the iconic snag I stared at when ruminating on current anxieties and future hopes all throughout Jr. High and High School, had succumbed to condos. Sound familiar? In the case of Austin's Barton Springs, Laura deftly explores the tangle of issues usually undergirding this type of development: private property rights, entrepreneurship, definitions of value, and conceptions of "growth." Shari Frilot's summary does the job well:

Dunn tracks the career of Gary Bradley, a west Texan farm boy who went to Austin and became one of the largest real estate developers in the state. In the '80s, Bradley had plans to transform miles of pristine hill country into large-scale subdivisions. But the development jeopardized Barton Springs, a watering hole treasured by locals, and served as a lightning rod for mobilizing environmental activism that flourished under Governor Ann Richards. When George W. Bush took the state's executive reins, however, development patterns changed, and the water quality at Barton Springs, as well as the surrounding landscape of Austin, was irreversibly transformed.

Telling vilified developer Bradley's tale humanizes a clearly polarizing debate. His downfall is among the many "unforeseen" elements, including water shortages in new developments. While he confronts a "Stronger, more mature regard for the future," audiences are left to reflect on what it means to grow.

Likely, GDP was so on the brain when interviewing Manda Bala's Jason Kohn because of the haunting manner in which it was represented in The Unforeseen. Starting out as a red line sloping steadily downward on a chart, it eventually merges with a topographical representation of suburban expansion. Red, haphazard roads appear as capillaries feeding tumors. Unchecked growth becomes analogous to cancer.

Bio-mimicry-centered alternatives prove effective contrasts: children's growing bodies, a butterfly's deliberate emergence from a cocoon. It may sound cheesy, but seeing that butterfly shot shifted something in me. Despite rejecting the Front Range cul-de-sac invasion of my youth, I had never felt a visceral jolt of what another type of growth could mean. The tumor/butterfly contrast isn't overblown; one leaves the theater believing that economic growth doesn't have to cost so much when it comes to landscape and quality of life. We just have to grow differently.

One audience member suggested that every planning commission in the nation see this film. I wish mine had. We'll keep you posted on venues and distribution. ::The Unforeseen at The Sundance Film Festival

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