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. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.
This succinct advert in a local newspaper (apparently inspired by a real ad) is what drives the plot of this low budget yet utterly charming indie hit movie. Released in 2012, Safety Not Guaranteed tells the tale of Darius (Aubrey Plaza) who, despite being a college graduate, is stuck in the land of internship at Seattle Magazine. Tasked with replacing toilet rolls and being a disrespected dogsbody, she jumps at the chance to accompany blasé writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) with his trip to write a piece on the author of such an odd temporal advert.
Although there are many signs that this is a low budget movie (minimal characters, small amount of real world settings, etc.) the money is clearly well utilised by an excellent cast and warm, free-flowing script. Aubrey sneaks into the life of Kenneth (Mark Duplass) by convincing him that she wants to go back in time with him, but she has to work through a series of tests in order to get past his cautious suspicions. At the core of the movie is their connection. In her, he sees a rare partner. In him, she sees someone earnest and genuine; someone with more heart than the dismissive phonies she is used to.
Intertwined is a couple of subplots that are hit and miss. Jeff’s interest in the story is revealed to be merely an excuse to visit the seaside community of Ocean View where he can track down an old flame. It’s fun to see the layers of his pretention peeled back as he gets to know her again, but it is a shame that the object of his growing affections is given little agency by herself beyond ‘perfect tool to shape male character’s story’.
Similarly, the journey of withdrawn shyness to loss of virginity from young nerdy intern Arnau (Karan Soni) is not realised enough to be a sub-plot of its own. Instead, this sexual diversion informs us more of Jeff’s mental state as he tries to relive his youth through Arnau’s very different personality. Regardless, these parts imbue the film with an additional stratum of developing maturity: youthful indifference replaced by the respect of genuine affection.
The growing relationship between Kenneth and Aubrey recalls a similar dynamic in Ghost World between Steve Buscemi and Thora Birch, in which an initially sardonic young woman is entranced by the warm earnestness of an older man. Plaza’s usually inscrutable persona (built off the back of NBC show Parks and Recreation) is melted away here and she delivers a subtle performance where minimal expression coupled with small smiles and softening of the eyes can tell so much. Similarly, the low-level pleasant soundtrack and clever cinematography (which switches between close-ups and wide shots) pull you in and evokes the charm seen in movies such as 2017s Unicorn Store.
What lifts Safety Not Guaranteed is an underlying theme of affection. Kenneth’s character is one you would initially peg as 100% kook, but the wonderfully measured performance of Duplass makes him quickly sympathetic. As his defences go down he lets Aubrey into his mind more and more, and the movie coyly toys with you with how genuine or not his ability to build a time machine is. Are those real secret agents following him? Are those schematics genuine? Is he deluded, or just world weary? The hints at a very lonely childhood and fractured love affair fill in the gaps of a performance that is delightfully show, not tell.
Safety Not Guaranteed is an absolute gem. Director Colin Trevorrow has since moved on to the Jurassic World series, and arguably entered the Hollywood cookie-cutter committee world of movie making. But as is so often the case given a minimal budget and a stand out cast, with Safety Not Guaranteed he constructed something that is steeped in individualist flair. This is a handcrafted science project instead of the by-instruction LEGO blocks. Bits may break off when picked at, but you can step back and enjoy the gloriously loving craft that went into it.
Words by Michael Record