In a country founded on expansion, growth is the ultimate good. That goes double in Texas, where bigger is always better. Focusing on massive real-estate developments in and around Austin, Laura Dunn's documentary The Unforeseen examines the impact of unchecked proliferation, on the physical and existential planes.
At its most concrete, The Unforeseen focuses on efforts to preserve Barton Springs, whose once-clear waters have become cloudy amid a flurry of exurban sprawl. In the 1990s, residents passed water ordinances that temporarily slowed the spread of new developments, but the developers' legislative allies countered with a bill backdating environmental restrictions to the time of a project's inception, no matter how many times it changes hands. The bill was stalled by the veto of then-governor Ann Richards, but quickly passed by her successor, George W. Bush. Dick Brown, the lobbyist who drafted the bill, fairly cackles as he recalls, "The legislature burned Austin to the ground." (Brown would not allow his face to be filmed, so the camera focuses on his hands as he assembles a military model airplane, its nose cone decorated with grinning shark teeth.)
On a more intangible level, Dunn pinpoints the desire for growth as a central part of the American character. As former Austin mayor Roy Butler points out, building a new house on virgin land is the archetypal American dream. Author William Greider, who explains how banking deregulation precipitated the savings-and-loan crisis, points out that growth isn't necessarily negative, an observation Dunn illustrates with a shot of a butterfly crawling from its cocoon. But shortly thereafter, she's filling the screen with pictures of cancer cells. Leave it to Willie Nelson to play the diplomat, observing that development can be "either positive or negative, depending on your point of view." Thanks, stranger.
Although the parts of The Unforeseen dealing with the anti-development movement are pure go-team agitprop, Dunn lends the movie a lyrical cast by combining aerial shots of the transformed countryside with the voice of Wendell Berry, reading from his poem "Sabbaths." With cinematography by Richard Linklater stalwart Lee Daniel, and executive production by Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, the movie wavers between Sundance-friendly issue film and spiritual reverie.