The controversy over intelligent design is a subject that tends to either bore people to tears, or send them immediately into an indignant fury, depending on their political interest and leanings. It comes, then, as a welcome surprise that Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus is so utterly engaging. Directed by marine biologist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson, the film takes a casual, humorous approach to the controversy that draws the audience in while never failing to respect its subject.

Olson himself plays a central role in the film, and his winning, gregarious personality is a key to its success, as he interviews majors players on both sides of the intelligent design controversy (as well as his own incredibly vivacious mother, Muffy “Moose” Olson). Despite his science background (he has a degree in evolutionary biology), Olson is as open with intelligent design advocates as he is those on the other side of the issue, and the ease he finds in relating to the former is presented as both troubling and amusing. In Flock of Dodos, supporters of intelligent design come across as straight-forward, friendly people. Evolutionists, on the other hand, tend towards arrogance and intellectual elitism, making it difficult for even one of their own to relate to them. When Olson gathers a group of scientists with whom he played poker in graduate school for another game, they are full of bluster, and obsessed with being “right,” instead of trying to understand their opposition. Though of course it's highly unlikely that everyone in both camps conforms to these stereotypes, Olson’s point is a valid one: that the supporters of intelligent design understand better than their opposition how to relate to the public. They use catch-phrases (“Teach the controversy”) and talking points, a down-home, salt-of-the-earth image (Dr. Michael Behe, one of the best-known advocates of intelligent design, is never seen without a plaid shirt, ala Lamar Alexander), and massive financial backing (The Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank and major force behind the intelligent design movement, has an annual budget of $5 million) to make their point of view easy to accept and absorb. Evolutionists, on the other hand, seem to think that simplifying their language and actually addressing the issues raised by those who favor intelligent design is slumming and, in an attitude that strongly reflects the country’s larger political divide, are loathe to resort to things that they consider cheap and unnecessary, like slick phrasing and talking points.

Though all of this may seem overly political, it doesn’t feel so in Olson’s film. Instead, he gracefully explores the issue through personalities. His interactions with them are never either mean-spirited or judgmental; both sides are gently mocked when their words and actions deserve it. Evolutionists, for example, periodically find their discourse interrupted by a black screen, offering the definition of a particularly impressive word, while a young, heavily made-up, conservative member of the Kansas school board has her wink (it’s either knowing or lascivious, probably a bit of both) at Olson’s camera played over and over and over again.

Because Flock of Dodos was made by someone with a passion for and background in science, its willingness to listen to and criticize both sides equally will surprise some viewers. It’s Olson’s background, though, that gives the film power -- not only is he well-positioned to ask the right questions of intelligent design advocates, but he’s also respected enough as a scientist that his criticism of evolutionists is easier for that side to stomach than it might otherwise be. Flock of Dodos is a rare, even-handed look at a hot-button issue, and it deserves to be widely seen; one hopes that its world premiere at Tribeca will win it a distribution deal, and get the film before the general audiences. It’s not as if this controversy is going to go away, so we may as well talk about it.