REVIEW: Safety Not Guaranteed [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 86 minutes | Release Date: June 8th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: FilmDistrict
Director(s): Colin Trevorrow
Writer(s): Derek Connolly

“My calibrations are flipping pinpoint, okay?”

Sweetly cute, subtly intelligent, and simply life affirming in the best possible way, Safety Not Guaranteed is the epitome of indie darling. Reminiscent to Chronicle from earlier this year, director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly have really taken care to use genre clichés in a way that somehow makes them appear fresh. We’ve seen the reporter lying for a story only to end up falling for her subject. We’ve seen the misunderstood weirdo toe the line between insanity and the impossible to give us pause as to how serious his claims are. But what happens when these tropes possess an authenticity that transcends their generic DNA? What happens when quirky characters awaken to their potential and discover there is more than meets the eye in this world?

I’ll tell you—brilliant storytelling. It really does boil down to those two words, a rarity in a cinematic period riddled by sequels and reboots banking on audience recognition rather than intelligence. Luckily we have reached somewhat of a renaissance in terms of smart, young filmmakers having the technology to put their ideas in front of the camera for cheap instead of watching scripts pile with dust and rejection letters from studios too fearful of the bottom line to take a chance. Crossing genres, sprinkling in geek talk, and showing the off-kilter guy getting the brooding girl with a deceptively gorgeous smile can captivate audiences. And just because there are no more original ideas in this world doesn’t mean there aren’t infinite combinations to be made.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is your run-of-the-mill jaded introvert who knows she’s better than you and never possessed the filter necessary to hide it. Unintentionally self-sabotaging via a propensity for sarcasm, she finds escape in a thankless internship stocking toilet paper at a magazine in hopes of landing the journalistic chops for success. So, when hotshot reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) pitches the idea to hunt down a gentleman in Oceanview, WA who placed a classified ad for a companion to time travel with, you can bet Darius is the first to volunteer. Maybe she senses a kindred spirit of eccentricity; perhaps she revels in the idea that some people out there are more warped and lonely than she. Whatever the reason, she knows she’s the perfect person to infiltrate Kenneth’s (Mark Duplass) trust and find the story.

Joined by an over-achieving co-ed named Arnau (Karan Soni), the trio leaves Seattle to hit the quaint town rather left in the recesses of their memories. But as they settle in, the realization Oceanview is exactly what they needed quickly arrives. Romantically their paths provide little originality, yet each step finds itself evolving towards a nuanced end that never feels forced. Jeff attempts to rekindle a relationship with the childhood hottie who got away while looking to break Amau from his shell of virginity as Darius finds the ability to dive headfirst into a lie absolutely freeing. Skeptics all, what begins as a fluff piece following around some crackpot in need of medication turns into a legitimate quest to travel back to 2001 and save loved ones lost.

Darius’s yearning to release from the existential crisis crushing her soul uses more truth than not. Leading Kenneth on to believe she too is ready to plunge through space and time, the omission that her job is the reason becomes her only lie. The simple fact Kenneth can unabashedly lay himself bare allows her to do the same for what may be the first time ever. They both know loss and the cruelty humanity likes to pretend goes away as you get older; they both desire someone who understands and isn’t afraid to look beyond the surface. The concept of time travel is obviously introduced as a ruse universally used to break emotional barriers and speak in metaphor to one another, yet soon proves anything but as the film advances.

Safety Not Guaranteed uses its characters’ cynicism to expose their failings. Johnson is great as the vain success story with little to share about himself besides material gains; Soni plays the shy, innocent nerd perfectly; and Plaza utilizes her usual dour persona with a mix of diamond in the rough beauty I haven’t seen her given the opportunity to do before. They have preconceptions about each other and themselves as they find difficulty trusting an inevitable shared compassion between them. Connolly’s script has multiple examples of marginalized characters assuming those ‘cooler’ than them are merely mocking when showing a willingness to help and their stunted growth into adulthood helps cultivate it. There assignment provides the chance to break from convention and see each other anew.

It’s Mark Duplass’s complicated role as Kenneth that trumps all, however. Troubled and a bit left of center, his strong personality of weird keeps the world at a distance. His matter-of-fact delivery is unwavering and although Plaza’s Darius tries to equal his intensity, her injection of slight smiles at his confidence and heart help set the film apart from its contemporaries. There is an emotional resonance from Duplass that retains the offbeat humor we’ve come to expect while also showing the range to succeed outside his mumblecore oeuvre. And while the film progresses conventionally, its unconventional sensibilities keep Kenneth and Darius’s plan possible in their minds if not plausible in reality. It’s never too late to find happiness and it’s always worth the trouble to do so.

[1] Mark Duplass stars as Kenneth in Safety Not Guaranteed.
[2] Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius Britt in FilmDistrict comedy ‘Safety Not Guaranteed.’ Photo by Benjamin Kasulke
[3] Aubrey Plaza as Darius Britt, Karan Soni as Arnau and Jake M. Johnson as Jeff Schwensen in FilmDistrict comedy ‘Safety Not Guaranteed.’ Photo by Benjamin Kasulke

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