The famous last line of Gatsby captures the futility of escaping the past, but it takes a time travel movie to recognize the equal problem of turning the boat around to confront it. Safety Not Guaranteed takes a real-life classified ad as its point of departure and out of it, builds a DeLorean fueled by nostalgia, regret and shame.
Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, an intern at Seattle Magazine who gets her first escape from office drudgery when staff writer Jeff (Jake Johnson, who I only just realized was not David Krumholtz) takes her and fellow intern Arnau up to the Washington beach town where the writer of the classified ad lives. Jeff, a smug yuppie who drives an Escalade and can’t think of any way to connect to Arnau other than encouraging him to get laid, has little interest in his job (straining believability at times, esp. with the Escalade) and sees the visit as an opportunity to reconnect with a local woman whose memory lies deep in the weeks of his romantic past.
His inattention leaves Darius in charge of the investigation, and she takes to it like a duck to water. A depressed shut-in, her lack of self readies her to focus on others, whether it’s in the form of listening sympathetically, surveilling without calling attention to herself, or–critically–repressing about her motives in order to win the trust of a source. The source is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a local oddball who not only believes that he can make the leap back in time but that the government doesn’t want him to.
Aubrey Plaza is best known for playing April the intern on Parks & Recreation, where she’s been encouraged to develop the character from Leslie Knope’s awesomely disaffected foil into a subtler, more fleshed-out character, subject to love and camaraderie (though still capable of submerging it). Her portrayal of Darius isn’t wide-ranging (that would be weird), but it is fine-tuned and controlled; she wields a deeply sympathetic unhappiness with a sharp edge, and I hope she gets to stick around for the long haul. Duplass’s performance is also dead-on, swinging between rage and hope, living in Kenneth’s weirdness.
The time travel in Safety Not Guaranteed is a classic heart-on-sleeve Sundance metaphoric construction. Kenneth wants to right a wrong from his past, to interfere in what he describes as a death he could have prevented, but mostly to go back to the clearest point he can identify before which life didn’t suck quite so much. Darius, playing the game with an open heart if not an open hand, wants to say goodbye to her mother, a disclosure she conceals from her magazine team. Meanwhile, Jeff’s own nostalgia trip ties him up in knots–he’s disappointed to find that his Annabel Lee “got big”, but even so, manages to peels back a critical layer of douchebag to reveal vulnerability.
In pursuit of the story and the trip back, the characters pile up wounds of the emotional sort and tresspasses of both trust and private property. Safety Not Guaranteed can’t truly pay off all of its emotional work, but feints thrillingly around it. I have mixed emotions about its ending, but I’ll wait til you see it to discuss. How about you? What did you see, from the present or from the past?