A lot of times, a film will allow its concept to overwhelm its story. Characters and their relationships will take a backseat to the narrative interest in the mechanics or oddities of the situation they are in. Slowly, the audience disengages because the mystery will never live up to its promise, and they won’t care about the end result for the characters.
In this way, you are a fairly miraculous film. On the surface, you are a weird – I hesitate to say “quirky” – tale of a group of lonely people who come into a situation for their own selfish reasons but emerge changed for the better. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) places an ad in a local newspaper looking for a companion to travel back in time with him – something he claims is not a joke and which he has done once before. Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), a writer for Seattle Magazine, wants to write a story about the person who would pay for such a patently ridiculous ad, and takes along two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni). Darius answers the ad and becomes Kenneth’s pupil for time travel, while Jeff reconnects with an old flame and Arnau slowly learns to break out of his titanium-strong shell.
It would be easy for you to rest on the laurels knitted from your intriguing premise. The question of whether or not Kenneth is delusional comes up more than once, but each time the subject is broached it takes on a different emotional shading because of the way the relationships between the characters and their own view of themselves has changed.
As time goes on and Darius grows closer to Kenneth, causing both of them to open up about the pain in their past that has made them look for a way to go back, we see that the promise of some better life is important to both of them. So important that the question of whether or not it is possible seems to melt away, though Kenneth still works with laudable diligence toward that goal. Likewise, Jeff, who initially wants to meet his high school flame for a cheap fling, finds that his time with her has brought him a greater level of satisfaction than he previously thought possible.
These are characters, flawed and human, who we care about. The things that grow in importance to them grow in importance to us, and as your story winds towards its conclusion and the lingering question that has hung over the proceedings – whether or not this time travel gambit is real of fantasy – the mix of both conceptual payoff and character climax creates an odd and fantastic alchemy.
Small scale films like you, which realize that character motivation and narrative are just as important as interesting thematic hooks, are what keep my spirits buoyed during a summer seasons of large scale, stultifying action fare. That you also realize the importance of emotional honesty in the midst of all of this science fiction and human drama is a further mark in your already inestimable favor.
So I’d say to anyone who asked, that you, Safety Not Guaranteed, are the kind of film that gets lost in the shuffle of super heros and super spies, but that will far outlast them all in the catacombs of my memory.
Thank you for the memories,
Brian J. Roan