Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni
"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll be paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." So reads the ad, and such is the premise, of Colin Trevorrow's comedy/drama Safety Not Guaranteed. Though it could easily have played as a broad comedy, the film is instead a surprisingly touching character study about loneliness and regret. And time travel, sort of.
Safety Not Guaranteed begins in fairly ordinary fashion, with aimless and disillisioned college grad Darius (Abrey Plaza) struggling to find her footing in the adult world. She lives with her widowed father and works as an intern at a Seattle magazine and generally seems to hate everyone and everything around her. When Jeff (Jake Johnson), one of the magazine's writers, proposes doing a story on the time travel ad and taking two interns along for the ride, Darius jumps at the opportunity and joins Jeff and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) on a road trip to uncover the identity of the man who placed the ad.
As they quickly discover, the man who placed the ad is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a somewhat odd clerk at a grocery store. After Jeff tries and fails to befriend him, Darius gives it a shot, managing to get past Kenneth's defenses and get an invite to train for the time travel mission. While Kenneth seems relatively harmless at first, Darius begins to have misgivings after he breaks into a facility to steal parts for his time machine, and once she realizes that his belief that there are government agents watching him is not unfounded. Darius begins to realize that she's in way over her head, but she's also started to develop feelings for Kenneth, who she comes to believe understands the grief and regret she feels about an incident in her past because he experienced something similar.
Though Safety Not Guaranteed is set up like a comedy, and has a solid comedic thread which weaves its way through the narrative, it's much more character driven than the average comedy, not to mention more solemn. Whether or not time travel literally occurs in the film (which I will leave you to discover for yourself), there is a figurative kind of time travel that gets indulged in by the characters. Jeff, for example, has used the story as a pretense to track down a high school girlfriend who lives in the same town as Kenneth and as things progress, it becomes clear that what he really wants is to do things over again - not with the girlfriend, necessarily, but just to return to a time in his life when all he had ahead of him were opportunities. When things with the ex-girlfriend crash and burn, he turns to Arnau, attempting to live vicariously through him. While Johnson's performance keeps Jeff from seeming unbearably morose, there is something very sad about him and the volatile mix of nostalgia, anger, and loss that is all too apparent during the night of "fun" he embarks on with Arnau.
The feeling of loss is something that underscores nearly every scene of the film. When Kenneth asks Darius why she would want to go back to the past, she tells him that she wants to prevent her mother's death, which she has always felt responsible for. She later tells Arnau a different story, but the film gives the sense that the version she tells Kenneth is the true one. Kenneth, meanwhile, claims that he wants to go back in time to prevent the death of a girlfriend. Taken all together, Darius, Kenneth and Jeff's stories add up to a desire to return to a time of "innocence," before harsh lessons and disappointments had snuffed out hope in the future. By the end, the film has managed to restore some degree of that hope to its characters, creating a highly satisfying ending which, nevertheless, fails to truly "answer" anything. Not that that really matters since, as I said, the film is much more about its characters than it is about its plot. While not a particularly innovative film, it does resonate through its very well-drawn characters and its fine performances.