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Stars: Audrey Plaza, Jake M Johnson, Mark Duplass, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Mary Lynn
Rajskub, Kristen Bell and Jeff Garlin.
Writer: Derek Connolly.
Director: Colin Trevorrow.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Screenings - Fri 3 Aug, 9.00pm; Tue 14 Aug, 9.00pm.

Rating: 4.5/5

For all its cool, young key-demo sassiness and nimble use of the ‘snarky aside’ to get laughs, Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed is a ultimately a big sooky dose of optimistic sentiment. The superbly-balanced tone of this sweet and sour outsider-romance is the real star of the San Francisco native’s feature debut, though breakout turns by on-the-cusp players Audrey Plaza and Jake M Johnson add to the film’s warm and wondrous sense of discovery.

The buzz began when Derek Connolly’s script picked up the prestigious Waldo Salt screenwriting prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is a written work rich in character detail but one which allows the protagonists to develop at a measured rate; there are no grandly histrionic scenes or manufactured false notes, merely four witty, kind-of-sad somebodies whose lives intersect at a pivotal juncture in their personal growth.

It is the story of Kenneth (a sublime Mark Duplass), a small town supermarket clerk who places a classified ad seeking a partner to accompany him on a time-travel experiment. A Seattle tabloid sees it as a quirky human interest piece and dispatches cynical Jeff (Johnson) and two interns, Darius (Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), to beef up the copy by providing some insight into the oddball’s back-story. Darius goes undercover, but soon becomes enamoured with Kenneth, whose nutty theories have also drawn the interest of some dark-suited G-men, the ironically-named Smith and Jones (Tony Doupe and Xola Malik, respectively).

Sci-fi buffs will derive immense enjoyment from the outward manifestations of Kenneth’s inner voice, writ large in easy-to-comprehend detail. Trevorrow has been open about his love of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, the epitome of comedy/drama/fantasy for a generation of filmgoers. Safety Not Guaranteed’s edgier moments of cynicism wouldn’t have played so charmingly back in 1985, but comparisons between the two films in terms of audience empathy and emotional involvement are spot-on. (When the film closed the recent Sydney Film Festival, the packed audience at the city’s grand State Theatre positively erupted with joy at the film’s final scenes).

The metaphors at work in Connolly’s script are no less endearing for being a little too obvious. Johnson’s Jeff travels to the backwoods township with small, narrow ambitions based on his past, whilst Duplass’ Kenneth seeks happiness by embracing the grand opportunities inherent to his vision. Fulfilment comes with self-belief and an assured sense of direction, back or forward. Trevorrow and his cast make this simple message particularly special; by yearning to travel across vast dimensions, they have captured the modern film narrative’s most elusive yet important one – depth.    

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