Over the past year or so, it seems like we’ve seen a lot of small movies about big, visually challenging concepts that are usually reserved for studio flicks. You know – the end of the world, space travel, the creation of the cosmos. That kind of stuff. And now, Sundance darling Safety Not Guaranteed tackles a similarly sci-fi-inspired theme. But while it might be about time machines and time travel on the surface, like all indie movies of this kind, it’s not really about any of that.
Let me explain. In Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) plays Darius, an anti-social magazine intern who gets assigned to help investigate a man who claims to be seeking a partner for time travel. “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” is all the personal ad reads. So, Darius goes with fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and reporter Jeff (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson) to investigate this man, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who they plan to write a magazine article about. Just like Darius, we’re not sure if Kenneth is crazy, or if there is any truth to his claim. But strangely, it almost doesn’t matter. Safety Not Guaranteed is much more about friendship, love, and regret than it is about a time travel. And as a result, it’s actually a pretty beautiful little movie.
The real strength of this movie is the relationships. First-time screenwriter Derek Connolly does a brilliant job of interweaving the different dynamics of his characters and making their friendships and romances seem natural. Whether it’s Jeff trying to find Arnau some action or Darius’ tentative friendship with the unstable Kenneth, these characters feel like real people because of the way they bounce off each other. The dialogue for the most part feels natural, and this helps prevent the strange premise from bogging the movie down in pure quirk.
Of course, it also helps to have performers who can bring believability to the roles, and director Colin Trevorrow certainly lucked out in that department. Mark Duplass is heartbreaking, funny, and genuinely sweet as Kenneth, who is as innocent as he is caustic. Duplass easily could have gone for an over-the-top performance here, but, as anyone who’s seen any of the films that he and his brother Jay have directed together will know, Duplass looks for the truth in his characters, no matter how strange they may be. One of his real strengths as an actor is in delivering natural-sounding monologues, and he has a couple unlikely, beautiful ones here.
Jake Johnson also delivers an unexpectedly moving performance as Darius’ snarky boss, Jeff. Initially, his character seems to be a pretty standard-issue movie prick, but as we learn more about Jeff, Johnson has the ability to show off some real acting range. As broad and funny as Johnson is in the early scenes of the movie, he becomes emotionally vulnerable in just as big of a way as the movie goes on. He’s not only bitingly funny, but he can communicate so much with a simple facial expression. The result is a scene-stealing performance that suggests big things to come from Johnson.
Despite its grand premise, there’s not a lot to Safety Not Guaranteed. However, there is a real sweetness that I found irresistible. From the gentle humour to the indie rock soundtrack to the montages to the heartfelt performances, everything just fell into place perfectly. And while love and loss may not be novel concepts in Hollywood, this movie has such a pure heart and genuine optimism that it completely won me over. It never really feels cloying, though. The relationships feel genuine and grow organically, and because of that, Safety Not Guaranteed completely enraptured me.