SXSW Film Review – Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed Movie PosterIt is a tough to get attention at a film festival when you’ve got films like The Cabin in the Woods and 21 Jump Street premiering. And yet my favorite film of SXSW was a movie that has a fraction of their budgets and star power, but succeeds with creativity and an overwhelming amount of heart. That was the quirky comedy Safety Not Guaranteed.

The film is based upon a real Craigslist ad in which the poster was looking for a companion for some time traveling. The movie takes that premise and sends reporter Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) of Seattle Magazine out in search of the individual to find out what his backstory is. On this journey he is joined by two interns, Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), to help him with his article. Darius is excited to go, as she is in search of a direction and frustrated in her current position. In reality, Jeff is just going so that he can try to hook up with his childhood girlfriend, but the group gets more than they expect when they meet the author of the letter, Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass).

It is important to not get too caught up in the idea that this is a sci-fi movie. The use of time travel is as an underlying story element for the purpose of moving the plot along, but isn’t as integral to the plot as in something like Primer. While the methodology of the time travel isn’t the key plot point, the discussion of the plausibility of it is important. It makes us question the world around us and what we know as fact; it makes us look at people we perceive as crazy and wonder whether they are truly crazy or just conscious of something we don’t know. That is the heart of the mystery in the movie.

A lot of the credit for the success of the movie has to be given to the writer Derek Connolly. This is the kind of project that I look at and wonder why I couldn’t have come up with the idea—it is brilliant in its simplicity and amazing how he takes the basic idea and turns it into a full-length script. Another strong point in the movie is the direction of Colin Trevorrow. His filmography has very few credits, but he does a fantastic job of moving the story along, keeping the mystery alive, and balancing the comedic and dramatic elements. Connolly and Trevorrow went to film school together and have worked on projects together in the past, and their symbiotic relationship excels here.

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On the surface she might not sound like the driving force of the plot, but this is Aubrey Plaza’s movie. Up until this point in her career she has largely played quirky, funny, sarcastic supporting roles. Much of that is present here too, but her character also has a lot of curiosity and a lot of heart. She is unfulfilled with her job as an intern and searching for more. This is an incredibly familiar position for many people of generations X and Y. Her chemistry with Duplass is one of the keys to the success of the movie. Both of them excel at sarcastic comedy, so for both not to play to that strength is impressive and makes me hope I see more from them outside of that realm.

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The comedic relief of the movie is largely left up to Johnson and Soni. Initially they are set up as caricatures for comedic purposes, with Johnson as an idiot and Soni an awkward virgin. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t end there for them, despite their storyline not being the driving force of the movie. Johnson and Soni form a brotherhood as the story cuts between them and Plaza & Duplass, and in some ways things feel like two films smashed together. But the balance that is struck between the two storylines ends up perfectly mixing the drama and the comedy, and ultimately everything comes together seamlessly.

Safety Not Guaranteed premiered at Sundance in January, and since then it has had a new ending attached to it. I highly recommend not looking into this until after you’ve seen the film. Personally, I enjoyed the characters’ journey and found the film pretty satisfying, but the original ending would dramatically shift how people might interpret it. As I saw it, I’d be hard pressed to complain. I was hoping for a little more resolution with Johnson’s storyline, but he grows so much already, that is really minor. Bottom line, I hope a lot of people check out this movie; it deserves to be successful and hopefully it inspires some more creativity in indie film (and perhaps even Hollywood). This is the kind of movie that inspires me to watch films—one where the filmmakers are doing something both original and entertaining.

Final Grade: A

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Spencer grew up with the many great films of the 1980s, before having his world rocked after seeing The Usual Suspects. That film inspired him to become a filmmaker.

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