Safety Not Guaranteed (Film District, R)

safetynot sqIt’s rare to find a film that tears through my critic’s cynicism and gives me more than I’d ever hoped for.

 

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Darius (Aubrey Plaza) has had a rough go of it. She remembers being a happy kid, before she “expected bad things to happen.” In the 10 years since her mom died, though, she’s spent her time bracing for misfortune and trying not to get her hopes up.

Very little excites Darius, including her tortuous gig as an intern at a Seattle magazine where she’s berated by her boss and forced to restock the bathrooms with toilet paper. Everything is going about as crappily as expected, until she volunteers for an unusual assignment.

Darius decides to tag along with magazine reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to research an undercover story on Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a mysterious man who’s placed an ad in a local paper for someone to travel back in time with. “Must bring own weapons” and “safety not guaranteed,” the ad gravely notes. When Darius is forced to take the lead on the reporting after Jeff spooks Kenneth, her life becomes far more exciting and pleasant than she could have ever expected.

Safety Not Guaranteed is an unexpected gem of a journey. It’s very rare to find a film that brims with cynicism at the beginning, only to become hopeful by the end credits. It’s also fairly rare to find a film that tears through my critic’s cynicism and gives me more than I’d ever hoped for. You’ll feel good when you leave the theater, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Kenneth is impressed by Darius upon their first meeting as she goes undercover as a potential time-traveling partner. It isn’t long before their clandestine meetings turn into training sessions for Kenneth’s new “candidate.” Weapons training and combat skills are important where they’re going, but so is trust. The ease that develops between the two is born from an eager reporter trying to suss out her source, but it gradually grows into something deeper for each of them.

One of the delightful things about Safety Not Guaranteed is how it so genuinely turns the characters into true believers. Darius begins to see Kenneth as more than a loon who thinks he has a time machine. Kenneth begins to drop the veil on what was likely his long and lonely road. In a subplot where Jeff looks up a summer love from his adolescence, he comes to realize that people change with time, and maybe that’s all right. Even Arnau learns that a little adventure can make life better.

The film handles Kenneth in an interesting way. There’s almost no attempt to wrestle with the is-he-crazy-or-is-he-a-genius question that his character obviously raises. The movie seems to accept that it’s possible to be both, while letting the non-believing outsiders shift their views as we do when getting new intel on him.

The filmmakers are also kind to not bog us down in time-travel tropes—probably because this isn’t necessarily a sci-fi film. We don’t get any big lectures about what might happen if they run into past versions of themselves or accidentally step on a bug that should have lived. I think that’s mostly because the time travel is sort of incidental to the film. It’s not about believing in Kenneth’s time machine; it’s about believing in the strength of relationships, romantic or otherwise.

Plaza and Duplass make for a perfectly odd couple on screen. It’s not hard to imagine these two bonding over something as strenuous as time travel training. Plaza gives Darius all the heart she needs for us to believe she would soften for a loveable weirdo like Kenneth. Meanwhile, Duplass makes Kenneth the kind of oddball we can all root for; he’s paranoid and sure of himself, but gentle and never, ever belligerent. Whatever your thoughts about the end of the movie, you’ll want these two to live a long, happy life together. Whenever that might happen. | Adrienne Jones

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