We love small movies. Well made small movies, we should say. There’s a tremendous satisfaction in watching something compact, devoid of unnecessary effects, and even stripped down to the bare essentials. These types of movies typically rely heavily on acting, directing, and writing. Just the basics. Movies like David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) and The Man from Earth (2007) are riveting because every small detail is made to count.
So, we were anxious to see Safety Not Guaranteed (2012). The cast is tiny. There are four primary players, a couple of minor ones, and just a handful of others. The film is set in Seattle and other than a small amount of special effects, it’s hard to see where much money was spent on anything. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the budget was under $1 million. The length of the movie is also austere at only 86 minutes. But that’s plenty to cover the small amount of ground the story-tellers need to go over.
Synopsis: A reporter for a Seattle-based magazine sees a classified ad that states: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” It’s just too weird to let go so he figures there’s a story there and enlists the help of two interns to go find out what the scoop is.
The reporter, Jeff (Jake Johnson), isn’t really that interested in the story. He sees the investigation as more of a road trip to catch up with a love interest from years ago. One intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), is actually studying biology, but given his awkward introversion feels that an internship with the magazine might round him out for future prospects. The other intern, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an unhappy person that has no ambition. She ends up in an internship essentially “just because.” The story centers around her.
We find out that Darius lost her mother to a senseless murder when she was 14. At first we thought that would play into the story in some significant way … but it doesn’t. That would make things too big. She’s simply dead and Darius regrets that she was unkind to her mother just before her death. She’s never forgiven herself even though everyone tells her it’s not her fault. Like many of us, she would like to go back in time to change things, but she knows that’s not possible. Still, she’s intrigued.
So, the intrepid team heads up to the small town of Ocean View to find the mystery person that posted the ad. It turns out to be a single man in his 30s named Kenneth who works as a grocery store clerk. Jeff approaches Kenneth (Mark Duplass) first but is rebuffed when Kenneth realizes that Jeff doesn’t take him seriously. So, Darius is enlisted. Sensing his lone-wolf paranoia (“they’re after me!”) she approaches him in a clandestine and weird manner … just the right hook to get Kenneth on the line. They begin to meet and Darius gains Kenneth’s trust. Little by little, the pieces start to fit together to show that both are hoping for some sort of redemption — a second chance. Kenneth’s quirky, nerdy demeanor shows he is totally committed to the plan. It’s difficult at first to tell what Darius is thinking. It seems like she’s amused at Kenneth’s weirdness, but as the movie progresses, one senses that Darius is actually hoping that Kenneth really can take her back through time.
We won’t insert any spoilers at this point. The side stories are interesting. Jeff is a shallow guy but he finds himself in a position that exposes his dissatisfaction with that condition when he finally does meet up with his former fling. Arnau is faced with his own growing up moment when Jeff encourages him to step outside his anti-social comfort zone.
This movie is basically about regrets … having them and avoiding them. Missing opportunities and taking chances. It’s thought provoking, it’s odd, and it’s funny. It was a fantastic way to spend an evening (well, 86 minutes of it).
The Good. The main actors were very well cast. Aubrey Plaza’s character is a sullen girl that denies herself the opportunity to connect with someone and be happy. She doesn’t believe she deserves it. As Darius gets to know Kenneth, her amusement at Mark Duplass’ character seems like it might have an unkind bent to it (and maybe it does at first), but it evolves to a genuine happiness in being with him. Darius is a very pretty woman but she’s the kind of girl that nerds probably think they have a shot at because she’s not ostentatious. Jeff is a sarcastic, insensitive dick — but the kind that you actually sorta like being around. Arnau takes on the mantle of the obligatory nerd, but he’s more than just there to fill a role. Finally, Kenneth is not an overblown character. He’s like that urgent and dramatic geek you probably knew in high school that never really grew up and that spends too much time worrying about the government. But he’s sweet. Yes, he’s weird, but he cares about people in his own awkward way. Whereas he could easily have overplayed the role, Mark Duplass makes him a believable character .
The Bad. OK, we admit it. We like closure. The film won’t give you that. In fact, closure is actually opposite of the intent. So, remembering that may be hard, but it’s the right way the film should end. So, really, the bad is us. D’oh!
The Ugly. The ear! Ew.