“Have you ever faced certain death?” Kenneth (Mark Duplass) demands, testing the chops of his potential time-travel partner, Darius (Aubrey Plaza). Her response is delivered with deadpan intensity: “If it was so certain, I wouldn’t be here, would I?” Deriving its narrative spine from a classified ad that appeared in a mid-Nineties survivalist magazine, Safety Not Guaranteed is firmly rooted in the reality of the absurd. The film, which marks Colin Trevorrow’s directorial debut, taps into the indie zeitgeist of existential anomie with refreshing humor and optimism. Poker-faced wit is synthesized with genuine angst and emotion in a way that may require you to check your cynicism at the door.
The oddly touching hybrid of screwball and sci-fi is set in motion when Darius, a pessimistic, unpaid, and unappreciated intern at Seattle magazine, leaps at the chance to escape the storeroom and enter the field. The mission: locating and profiling Kenneth, the man behind the mysterious-verging-on-insane newspaper ad that bears the film’s eponymous disclaimer. With her gangly, bespectacled colleague Arnau (Karan Soni) in tow, Darius hops into the front seat of her boss Jeff’s white Escalade, and the unlikely trio set off on a weekend road trip along the sunny Washington coastline.
All but abandoned by the adolescent-minded Jeff (Jake Johnson), whose top priority is tracking down an idealized high-school girlfriend, Darius uses her misfit aura to her advantage—perhaps for the first time ever. After locating Kenneth in the seaside town of Oceanview with nothing but a P.O. box and a knack for lurking, she slowly earns his trust by completing the rigorous physical and philosophical demands of time-travel training. With a seemingly effortless eye for visual rhythm, Trevorrow’s camera does justice to the majestic mossy forests and rugged misty beaches of the Pacific Northwest as Kenneth teaches Darius to run, fight, and shoot. Countless moments in these kinetic sequences would lend themselves particularly well to indie album covers.
The comically endearing clicking of “weird mojo’s” that unfolds between Kenneth and Darius owes as much to Derek Connolly’s sweet and shrewd script as to the nuanced performances from Duplass and Plaza—Mumblecore King and Deadpan Queen, respectively. Pulling off a paranoid scientist-woodsman and lonely shamanic man-child, Duplass will have you questioning whether he’s crazy or the only one who really gets it, from start to genre-bending finish. The dynamic Plaza, expressing complicated subtleties with those big brown eyes, makes an overdue dramatic departure from her characteristic one-dimensional comedic turns. Veteran rom-com wingman Johnson and newcomer Soni provide more than stock material; their aesthetically rendered male bonding—replete with hard liquor swilling in swerving go-carts and on candy-colored Ferris wheels—fully warrants emotional investment.
Primarily composed by Ryan Miller—lead singer of alt-rock band Guster—the score adheres to the idiosyncratic contours of the film’s delicately balanced tone like a bodice: the lilting piano and soft plucking of the acoustic guitar accommodate orchestral swells in all the right places. Despite taking on a plot that risks all quirk and no substance, the film’s carefully calibrated framework yields a welcome reprieve from nihilism. A rare gem rife with one-liners but without the gloss of hipster pretense, Safety Not Guaranteed is a reality-warping meditation on paralyzing nostalgia, painful longing, and profound loneliness.