Thursday, June 7, 2012

SIFF Review: 'Safety Not Guaranteed'

Aubrey Plaza definitely has a niche. She’s got the indie market cornered on snarky, disaffected twenty-something cynicism. But there’s heart in there, too, and nowhere is that more on display than in director Colin Trevorrow’s low-budget time travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. The film is funny, inventive, tinged with sadness, but also hope.

Quirkiness is the word of the day in regards to Safety. Plaza plays Darius, a depressed intern at Seattle Magazine. When a seemingly light-hearted assignment comes down the shoot, her d-bag boss Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) grabs her and another nerdy intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), and they run with it. Someone placed a classified ad—based on a real Craigslist ad that became a viral sensation a few years ago—looking for a time travel companion.

The ad reads:

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. You must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

The magazine team digs in to see what kind of person is behind this. Is this some sort of elaborate practical joke, or does the author actually believes he can go back in time? It doesn’t hurt that Jeff has figured out how to use this assignment as a way to track down an old flame in the process of getting paid.

The trio’s path finally leads them to Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and Darius is sent in to investigate. Kenneth wears a lot of denim, has a mullet, and nearly everyone has written him off, dismissing his theoretical rants and paranoia. He has an extraordinarily high level of self-confidence, seemingly without any means to back it up. Darius is the only one who takes him seriously. While she doesn’t initially entertain the possibility that he can do what he says he can, she treats him like a real person. It helps that she’s a pretty girl.

As you can predict, the two become close. As Kenneth lets Darius deeper into his world, she, in turn, does the same. He puts her through her paces to decide if she is a worthy time travel cohort. This is the real story of Safety Not Guaranteed, these two lonely people forming a real, honest connection. There is an affection, chemistry, and awkward easiness that makes you want to watch them together.

The relationship between Darius and Kenneth is nice and adorable and all that. Duplass brings an infectious sincerity to his character, and is hunky enough you believe Plaza might want to hit that. You don’t necessarily believe him—he definitely believes himself—but you’re really rooting for him to be right. Darius and Kenneth drive the plot—and this is their movie completely—but the side story between Jeff and Liz (Jenica Bergere), a high school romance, might be the most earnest, moving part of the film.

There is also a funny aside between Jeff and Arnau. Arnau begins the film as a flat stereotype, but that changes as Jeff decides he’s gonna teach the kid how to live. It starts out with Jeff trying to cling to his own youth, but he develops a sweetness that can’t be denied, and the each of them discovering important truths about themselves.

Safety Not Guaranteed asks the question why would you want to go back in time? What pain lurks in your past that you’ve never gotten over? What wrong would you right? Everyone has regret, sorrow, loss, things they wish they could take back and do over. Kenneth is overtly trying to jump back in time, but so are Darius—who uses this opportunity to cope with unresolved issues with the loss of her mother years before—and Jeff—who, no matter how many women he talks into bed, has never truly stopped thinking about Liz. They all reach to the past in one form or another, looking for something to make sense of their present.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a quiet, inventive approach to science fiction. The script, by Trevorrow and writing partner Derek Connolly, relies on interesting characters and a unique story rather than expensive, eye-catching special effects and flashy gimmicks. This is definitely not a film for everyone. It’s ultra twee and overly precious at times, and that will turn some people off. But it really is funny, heartfelt, and more imaginative and resourceful than most indie sci-fi out there.

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