What a wonderful picture Safety Not Guaranteed turns out to be—to describe it is to reduce it to its rudimentary plot points, but to see it, and witness the sensitivity and sweetness play out onscreen, is a thing of beauty. It’s a movie that starts as a joke and then becomes something deep and true. By the end, what appeared to be a quirky indie comedy turns on its head to ask questions about coming to terms with the past and believing in someone you love. It’s smart and subversive and at its core believes in the transformative power of love, a terrific message in today’s garbage dump movie landscape. It has a lot on its mind.
Aubrey Plaza, with her big, brown eyes and intense way of listening and evaluating in each scene, plays an unpaid intern named Darius at a Seattle magazine that teams up with a hack writer named Jeff (Jake Johnson) and another shy intern named Arnau (Karan Soni) to find the writer of a mysterious personal ad. The author of the ad is searching for a partner to travel back in time, and though “safety (is) not guaranteed,” the trio embark on a mission to see if the creator is legit. Already in describing this basic set-up, I’ve failed to convey the droll comic tone, courtesy of very astute handling of actors by director Colin Trevorrow.
The intrepid reporters squat down in an Ocean View, Washington motel and soon locate their subject, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a quirky grocery store clerk who firmly believes in time travel, and also that he is being watched and followed by some mysterious government types—which he just might be, but not for reasons we might guess. He lives alone in a big house in the woods covered with gadgets and maps and contraptions. Ordinarily in a Hollywood movie the description above would lend itself to hijinks, but not here.
What initially begins as an assignment for Darius soon turns into something else as she bonds with Kenneth, and she not only begins to believe him, but to grow closer. Undercover as a journalist to get a story, she pretends to want to go back in time with him—until she really does want to go back, we learn, because she feels responsible for the death of her mother. And we also learn that he is nursing regrets over the supposed death of an ex-girlfriend. One of the film’s great strengths (and that of Plaza’s performance) is that she doesn’t let us into her thoughts easily—we’re not quite sure for quite awhile whether she believes in Kenneth, or believes he is full of it.
Parallel to this is a subplot about sexist Jack coming to terms with his ex-girlfriend, his real motivation for making the road trip. Leaving his interns in charge of the story, he abandons them to spend his time with Liz (Jenica Bergere), a lovely old flame from years past, and one that he hasn’t been able to get out of his mind for two decades. Their reunion leads to some of the film’s most tender moments. You can’t go back again, the wise screenplay by Derek Connolly suggests, and that nostalgia for the past can only get you so far.
Jack is also intent on having computer geek Arnau lose his virginity, which in other movies would have played as raunch but here is handled very sweetly—as Jack is on the disillusioned side of adulthood, he wants to see the young man take youth by the horns. Soni has a very entertaining cadence that seems wholly perfect for a guy more comfortable with a computer in his hands than a woman in his arms.
But the central story between Darius and Kenneth is the heart of the picture, and while Kenneth is certainly an offbeat character, the movie believes in him, and we want to as well, played by Duplass with just the right mix of off-kilter paranoia and honest goodness. And Plaza is so alert and smart an actress, so free from manner and minimal in style that her acting feels right on the mark—she’s an original in an original movie.
Of course, any movie that sets up a potential time-travel premise has to deliver on whether the time travel is possible, and the conclusion of the film finds a satisfying way to resolve this which is, yes, about time travel but not really at all. What the film says, basically, is that all things are possible with love and belief, and an extraordinary moment where Darius steps onto a boat and takes Kenneth’s hand contains genuine wonder.
Safety Not Guaranteed is about a lot of things, including believing in someone when no one else does, what real commitment is and how the past shapes us. The tone, which might be described as deadpan-romantic-whimsy-bittersweet-comic, shapes a movie that will be hard to beat as the best of the summer.