The phrase “dime a dozen” means something so common that its value is little or nothing. And in my opinion, the quirky indie comedy is a dime a dozen. Or something like that. My point is that every year we get these releases after the film festivals where people we recognize are in movies that feature songs performed by the The Shins and The Bravery and other bands that begin with “The.” The characters make funny, topical references, they wear clothing that was purchased at Urban Outfitters, and they learn something over the course of just-over 90 minutes that is supposed to resound with us because the film isn’t budgeted at over $100 million and so it looks more like the life that we see every day. They’re released every year and every year, they’re applauded for being different and funny and special. And I swear, more often than not, there’s absolutely nothing special about them, except for the fact that a major distributor didn’t, you know, distribute the film.
All that to say, Safety Not Guaranteed, a film written by a first-time screenwriter (Derek Connolly), directed by a first-time director (Colin Trevorrow), and produced by the same people that brought us one of the actually-special indie comedies (Little Miss Sunshine) is exactly what I’m describing above. The only difference is that instead of making me feel cynical and wishing that the filmmakers respected the audience enough to not be just-so-damn-cute, the film soars, thanks to entertaining performances, top-notch writing, and enough whimsy buried beneath a sincere core that, granted you have a heart in your chest, will cause you to leave the theater smiling from ear-to-ear.
To begin, the cast is pitch-perfect. Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) solidly carries the film as Darius, an intern at a Seattle magazine. Along with Arnau (impressive newcomer Karan Soni), she joins Jeff (Jake Johnson of “New Girl” fame, ably jumping back and forth between douchey and endearing) on a hunt for the writer of a Want Ad that you can read in the movie poster above. It sounds preposterous to them what this guy is suggesting and they figure it’s going to make a fantastic news story. And once they meet Kenneth (Mark Duplass, who when he’s not starring in FX’s comedy “The League” is directing other indie movies like Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Cyrus) it all begins to look like that’s exactly what they’ve got. We follow Darius mostly as she is the candidate that Kenneth is trying out for his companion role on his journey back in time and how she, through eye-rolls and honesty-mixed-with-sarcasm, quickly wins him over. Duplass and Plaza are sensational together and the humor that we get from these characters ranges from slapstick to subtle tics and sarcasm. The movie peaks, however, in one particular scene where Kenneth shows off his zither skills (it’s a guitar-like musical instrument) to Darius. It’s a touching and heartfelt moment that doesn’t try too hard and in it’s sincerity, succeeds in making us care even more for these characters. We are also treated to Jeff’s quest of reigniting a flame with a high school fling and ultimately his attempts at aiding Arnau in his graduation from boy to man. Every character has a high and a low during the film and we see them all respond with natural, human emotions. As we see them move forward, unsure of what is actually going to come of each of their situations, we feel nothing but hope that their journeys end with them satisfied with their individual conclusions.
As I sat in the packed theater, I began looking around to the extremely diverse audience that was taking in the film. Young and old. Black and white. Hipsters and the sane (yes, that’s the opposite of hipster). And everyone was engrossed throughout the running time. It’s a film for anyone who at any point felt a little like an outcast. It’s a film for anyone who has had a dream about going back to a time in their life when things weren’t as bad as they had grown to be. It’s a film that shows you that oddities are aplenty and that we all have the potential for something special if we just have the strength to take that leap. And, maybe most importantly, it’s a film that will leave you walking about a foot off the floor after the credits start. And as much as I’d like to continue writing about the joy that the movie brings (hell, if I can write 1200 words about Battleship, I can write that much about anything!) it’s best left to me saying simply that Safety Not Guaranteed was a welcome surprise. And while subsequent views hopefully maintain that feeling, for now I can safely say that it sits comfortably on the top line for films I’ve seen this year. It’s not a flashy superhero movie, it doesn’t inspire debate about the origin of life, and it doesn’t involve bats, cats, or Bane, but at the end of the day, when all you want to do is enjoy something, this film succeeds on every level, and that much I can all but guarantee.