Sundance has come to London! We were excited when we heard the news, even though it felt a long way off at the time. Yet over a year later, the spiritual home of American indie cinema really has ventured out of Utah for four days in our capital, albeit in the Millennium Dome O2. This government white elephant turned massive marketing exercise is not a venue that fosters a feeling of independent filmaking and it was quickly evident that Sundance has heard this criticism a lot: during his introduction to Safety Not Guaranteed, festival director John Cooper declared that a lot of people had asked why the O2? He gestured at the gigantic (and Sky sponsored) screen behind him. “Look at this screen! Films look amazing on it and that makes filmmakers happy.” Which is all very well if you’re in the perfect seat but scant comfort when you’re craning up from the fourth row. Oh well, moving on, what about the film?
Before the screening, director Colin Trevorrow claimed that Safety Not Guaranteed is a film that embodies the spirit of American indie filmmaking. Describing the fight to get movie financing as an example of the American can-do attitude in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances, that same attitude is shown by one the story’s main characters. Which makes it a real Sundance film.
Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is your disaffected, wise-cracking cynic who is making no money interning at a magazine. When the above ad appears in the classifieds, one of the journalists, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) – cheekily lovable douche – pitches it as a potential story and takes Darius and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni) – socially-inadequate Asian nerd – to check it out. On arriving in the Washington coastal town that is their destination, Jeff sets off to track down an ex from when he was 18 and leaves the interns to do all the legwork. Through this they find Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who apparently really is convinced he can travel back in time, and it’s up to Darius to get past his guard and dig out the real story. In a nice touch, during the post-film Q&A Trevorrow revealed that the original writer of the real classified ad appeared in a cameo role.
Apart from Kenneth, who stands apart as a fascinating soul, you’ve seen these characters often, although with the slight twist that almost everyone acts as if they’re teenagers stuck in adult bodies. Which at one point I thought was going to be an actual plot twist in the naively sweet Kenneth’s case, so fixed is he on past slights and childhood traumas. But no. Regret has taken over all the characters to such an extent that their personalities all seem cemented in the past in some way. This is particularly evident in selfishly hedonistic Jeff, who appears determined to force Arnau into making the same mistakes he did.
While each character’s arc is disappointingly predictable, so are the film’s basic values – you know the ones:
- No matter how smart you might be, to get the girl, you absolutely must play a musical instrument as well
- To have a fulfilling life, get over your inhibitions and just get laid, it pretty much doesn’t matter who with
- The lie that is the foundation for the situation you are in will be found out but will ultimately be forgiven if you feel bad enough about it
- If you’re responsible enough to actually think about the consequences of your actions, you are the enemy of free-spirit and should be rejected
The premise is a fun and genuinely intriguing one and there are real laughs and touching moments but this low-budget HeKniSciFi brings few surprises. It’s a gentle narrative, smoothly put together so it was a surprise that the ending, with the most ineffective special agents I have ever seen on screen, was suddenly too clunky to bring any actual tension to the conclusion.
The whole piece is well-acted and Aubrey Plaza carries the film comfortably but charming as it can be, Safety Not Guaranteed is indie comedy drama by-the-numbers.