Let's call this one the "Not Quite Genre" edition of science fiction and fantasy film coverage at SXSW 2012, shall we?
This year's fest is chock-full of non-standard festival fare, from action masterpieces like The Raid to more horror films than you can shake a severed limb at. However, there's an odd dearth of straightforward science fiction and fantasy going on. That wouldn't be a problem if you've come down to Austin to have a good time and see as many movies as possible, but it is a bit of a problem if you've been tasked with seeing and writing about the science fiction and fantasy films playing the fest. To be honest, SXSW 2012 is only screening two "true" science fiction films films and you will be able to read all about both Iron Sky and Extraction later in the week once we've managed to catch up with them.
However, there are a handful of films that touch on these genres without ever actually becoming them, films that incorporate science fiction and fantasy elements in slight, subtle ways, either for creative or budgetary reasons. To be completely honest with you, these films probably shouldn't be covered under the "Science Fiction and Fantasy" banner, but they don't cleanly fall into any other category and they're too good to not talk about.
Electrick Children has many of the flaws you'd expect from a feature film with a first time director and a tiny budget. It's storytelling can be a little scattershot. It's digital cinematography can be little rough around the edges. The final act embraces conventions we've seen far too many times in far too many movies.
But it's also the kind of film that you go to festivals hoping to find. In turn funny and sad and pathetic and hopeful, Electrick Children feels intensely personal, like it was lying underneath writer/director Rebecca Thomas' skin and just had to get out no matter what. If a debut feature is the filmmaker's mission statement for the rest of his or her career, then color me very interested in what Thomas is cooking up next.
Initially set in an isolated Mormon sect in the middle of the American desert, Electrick Children is the story of Rachel (Julia Garner), a fifteen year-old girl who hears rock and roll music for the first time via a semi-forbidden cassette player and suddenly finds herself with a massive case of immaculate conception. Naturally, her parents (Billy Zane and Cynthia Watros) think she's been up to all kinds of secularist shenanigans and immediately arrange a marriage for her. So Rachel steals her father's truck and sets out to track down the singer on the cassette, convinced that he is the father of her child. Of course the first city she encounters is Las Vegas and that's where the movie really takes off.
What exactly is going on in Electrick Children? Is the father of Rachel's unborn child God? Is he the man on the tape? Much like Rachel herself, who has been raised to believe that miracle through God's power and love are entirely possible, the film isn't too concerned with the literal circumstances of our heroine's predicament. The film's concern (and Rachel's) is not the how or the why, but the what next. In many ways, Electrick Children is a fish-out-of-water story, but not in that Hollywood "look at a rube do wacky things!" kind of way. As out of place as Rachel is in the seedy world beyond her community, she projects a strength and determination that outweigh her cultural ignorance. Garner, looking impossibly young and fragile, finds the perfect balance between natural intelligence and taught naivety. Her performance is perfectly matched by Rory Culkin, who plays the hopelessly damaged punk who acts as her escort into this bizarre new world. Their relationship is ultimately the core of the film and the two of them, equally unfit for society but in distinctly different ways, make one helluva couple.
Ultimately, it's the intentional vagueness of Electrick Children's message that has kept the film lingering in my mind. Was Rachel impregnated by God? Is the film equating Jesus Christ with rock and roll music? Both are perhaps the greatest showcases of rebellion, after all. God is great, but so are electric guitars. Is this a film about finding the perfect healing balance between the divine and secular worlds, with music being the conduit used to give a girl a true spiritual awakening? Sure. Why not? That sounds good.
Safety Not Guaranteed uses a fantastical, attention-grabbing concept to get you in the theater but then delivers a low key character comedy. This would have been a problem if that low key character comedy wasn't a funny, heartwarming, charming and effortlessly romantic triumph that should warm even the iciest of souls.
That attention-grabbing concept? A magazine writer and two interns discover a newspaper classified ad requesting partners for a journey back in time. Thinking they've got a great puff piece on their hands, they seek out the writer and, in true indie film spirit, discover a great deal about themselves and each other.
Of course, many indie films concern themselves with characters discovering a great deal about themselves and each other (and let's be honest: a significant percentage of them aren't any good at all), but Safety Not Guaranteed is the kind of movie where the perfect script found the perfect director who found the perfect cast. This is a film that lives or dies depending on whether or not you give a damn about these characters' wants and needs. Any potential time travel takes an immediate backseat to the characters discovering one another.
Director Colin Trevorrow's visuals aren't particularly compelling, but they don't need to be. When you have a script and cast this good, a wise filmmaker knows when to just step back and yell action. So many first time directors (each of them with something to prove) make the mistake of making their camera more active than it should be, utilizing nifty camera tricks that only distract from what's actually going on up on the screen. The visuals in Safety Not Guaranteed are admirably restrained and the traditional compositions give the actors the proper room to breathe and say their words. A lot of people will see Safety Not Guaranteed and rave about the script and the actors, but Trevorrow is a real hero here, letting the strong material stand on its own.
Each individual element in the film's ensemble clicks together. Jake Johnson radiates scumbag charm as Jeff, the reporter who uses the story as an excuse to track down an old flame. As his socially awkward intern, Karan Soni is the perfect deadpan foil to Johnson. Omnipresent indie film demigod Mark Duplass brings real warmth and sadness to Kenneth, the man who behind the ad, who works in a grocery store, believes the government is following him and trains in martial arts and firearms to protect the "time machine" he's building in his garage. All three characters could be potentially played as cartoon characters (especially Kenneth), but the actors find humanity in each of them. The film and the actors don't find easy jokes in Kenneth being a weirdo…they makes him a lovable weirdo who you want to hang out with. You laugh with these guys, never at them. What could have been cruel, "quirky" comedy becomes something subtle and beautiful. I left the film in love with each and every character.
As good as those guys are, the film belongs to Aubrey Plaza (so much so that she's getting her own paragraph here while those guys get to share one). As Darius, the directionless intern who slowly finds herself falling in love with Kenneth, Plaza stops being that hilariously dour girl on Parks and Recreation and starts being a bonafide movie star. Unconventionally gorgeous, effortlessly charming and armed with deadly comic timing, Plaza is the film's heart and soul and her rapport with Duplass is the highlight of the movie. It's difficult to imagine leaving the film not being head-over-heels in love with Plaza.
Plaza and Duplass have terrific chemistry and their evolution from friends (snappy, witty rapport and frequent, hilarious training montages) to potential love interests (genuinely sweet and romantic sequences including a beautiful scene where Duplass serenades Plaza) feels like the most natural thing in the world. Their story is so easy to become invested in that it actually creates the film's biggest weakness: the film's other major storyline, Johnson's quest to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, simply isn't as compelling. It's not bad by any means, but it never feels as natural or as complete as what goes between Plaza and Duplass and whenever they're off screen, you just want them back on again.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a film that wears its heart on its leave. It's a small movie with big emotions, built to appeal to the romantics in the audience (and if you came looking for a straightforward time travel movie, it's best to just move along). If you're the kind of sucker who likes things like laughter and love and leaving a movie theater with your heart filled with rapturous joy, then, um...yeah, this is probably the movie for you.