Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed is probably not the best movie you’ll see all year, but it might just be the most special one. This is a little movie (budgeted at a reported $750,000) that could have gone wrong in so many ways and at so many points — and somehow it never does. It’s the kind of high concept movie where you go in fully expecting the resolution to be a lemon. It looks for all the world like it’s going to wear its indie cred on its sleeve — and it kind of does start that way. But it oh so slyly pulls you into its story and, more importantly, into its characters. It emerges as…well, something very special.
This is a hard movie to reduce to a synopsis, and a harder one to write about without giving away too much. But I will say, I liked the film even better watching it a second time when I knew where it was going and could appreciate the nuances — when I could realize that the whole movie is grounded in its characters and the audience experiencing a series of epiphanies as the story progressed. The premise is simple enough and is taken from a real event — or at least a real classified ad reading, “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.” In the film, Jeff (Jake Johnson, 21 Jump Street), a writer for a magazine, pitches the ad for a potential story. Arming himself with a couple of interns (“Give me the lesbian and the Indian”), he goes in pursuit of the prospective subject in a small beach town in Washington. The interns are actually Darius (Aubrey Plaza, TV’s Parks and Recreation), who isn’t a lesbian and Arnau (Karan Soni), who is an Indian.
Darius is a fairly gloomy realist (“Now, I just expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up”), who quickly realizes that this is more a vacation to Jeff than anything else. (In reality, Jeff has a kind of time travel of his own in mind, hoping to hook up with an old girlfriend.) However, when Jeff strikes out in attempting to answer the time travel ad, Darius finds herself given the job of hooking the advertiser because of her gender (“You’re dangling my vagina out there like bait,” she complains). Regardless, she convinces Kenneth (Mark Duplass) she could be his time-traveling companion. Kenneth is a slightly twitchy, clearly paranoid, social misfit who works as a stocker in a grocery store — and who clearly believes he can time travel. He may or may not be nuts, but he’s not a phony.
That’s as far as I’m going in terms of outlining the plot. Let the film do the rest in that regard. While the plot is surprisingly strong, complex and developed (all in 86 minutes, too), the real secret lies in the characters and the fact that neither Trevorrow, nor writer Derek Connolly, ever look down on any of these people. There is a true sense of simple humanity in their collective journey of discovery over the course of the film. Moments of their realizations have a piercing quality that goes straight to the heart — like Jeff drunkenly shouting that Aurno is his best friend, or admitting that he no longer knows what the story they’re working on is about.
All of the actors are excellent, but somehow Duplass’ damaged Kenneth is the gem for me. Duplass crafts a person of such innate sweetness and innocence that you believe he would feel it necessary to ask if Darius knows what Star Wars is, and talk about his Star Wars figures from when he was younger in terms of them getting lonely. Yet he never seems affected or emotionally stunted. (And that’s borne out by a revelation Darius has — conveyed solely by her expression — when talking to his ex-not-really-girlfriend.) It’s a beautiful performance in an equally beautiful film. I really can’t find a false step in the movie — and, not that it matters much — that extends to Kenneth’s basic notions of time travel. Rated R for language including some sexual references.