MIFF 2012: Safety Not Guaranteed
August 22nd 2012 04:43
Films like this are the salvation of American cinema. Thank God we have a legitimate alternative to the mindless, fiscally irresponsible, creatively bankrupt 'event' films – most of which are remakes or reboots – pouring out of the Hollywood machine like a toxic sludge. Make no mistake, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) is the antidote: a small film with a giant heart – not to mention those elusive qualities like characterisation, whip-smart humour, attention to detail, intelligent structure and an unpredictable payoff with sincere emotional weight attached.
Though she pines for something better, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is interning at a small Seattle magazine. During a staff brainstorming session writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) brings to the editor's attention a peculiar wanted ad in which a person claims to be looking for an accomplice to travel back in time with him or her, after which they’ll be paid. The ad also stresses that the applicant “must bring your own weapons” and that safety is not guaranteed. Assuming it to be the work of a crackpot, but a colourful crackpot perfect for a profile, Jeff is sent on a road trip to investigate. He chooses a reluctant Darius and fellow intern and outsider Arnau (Karan Soni) along for the ride.
With a bit of amateur detective work they soon identify Kenneth (Mark Duplass) as the ad’s author. Jeff takes a crack at getting to the source but is promptly rebuffed, clearing the way for the acerbic, cynical Darius to make headway. Whilst Jef tracks down a college sweetheart, Kenneth proves to be far more trusting of Darius and her concocted story; slowly he allows her into his inner circle of knowledge, siphoning off details of how and when their trip back in time will be accomplished.
Is Kenneth the real deal, or just a paranoid eccentric heading down a very fast track to the loony bin? Plaza and Duplass aren’t the most logical pairing, yet they combine on screen in the most credible way. The wonderful Duplass in particular, a mainstay of recent indie cinema, gets under your guard with remarkable ease. Not only does he bring subtle, instinctive acting skills to the table (as otherwise proven in Geoff Marslett’s clever rotoscoped 2010 feature Mars) but, sporadically, as a writer-director with his brother Jay; together they gave the world, amongst others, the brilliant Cyrus (2010).
Through offbeat comedy, impeccable naturalistic performances and believable scenarios through which the central conceit of time travel is scattered, Safety Not Guaranteed manages a kind of perfection: it never lags and remains consistently funny; all three main characters are afforded genuinely interesting development and arcs within which far from simplistic personal and moral choices are confronted. The film, most gratifyingly, is also devoid of predictability. You’ll never guess how it all turns out and be genuinely surprised either way.
Written by Derek Connolly and directed with proficiency by Colin Trevorrow, this strangely affecting tale even had me on the verge of a teary moment or two. Why? Could it be just because the heart and soul that is its driving force is so much blessed relief from the visceral assault of CGI overloaded films that will most likely shoulder it from view upon release? I’m happy to report that the magical depths of this film run far deeper, awaiting discovery for discerning viewers always alert for that restorative cinematic antidote. Safety Not Guaranteed may not be the best film I see this year, but for now at least, it’s my absolute favourite, something so precious you almost want to protect its existence from the world to prevent an exposure overload from ruining its enchantment.
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