Sundance Journal: ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’

Many of the narrative films I saw at Sundance this year seemed to need a few edits or some reworking to be truly viable in the mass market. ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’, on the other hand, is perfect the way it is. No alterations are needed. This was the most complete narrative film I saw at the festival.

The plot synopsis promises a sci-fi experience, but much like last year’s Sundance favorite ‘Another Earth‘, working on a low budget sort of guides the screenwriter’s hand. ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ has something to do with time travel, but we’re well aware that the filmmakers aren’t working on a ‘Back to the Future’ budget. They need to create a story that works in the confines they’re given. That’s why this is a movie about the promise of time travel and not the actual act.

In a way, that seems like a better proposition to me. In other movies about time travel, we take it for granted. We sit down and say, “Okay, they can time travel. Now what?” Here, we’re left wondering if time travel is even a viable option. This builds much more suspense than you’d think.

Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass) puts an ad in the personals section of the newspaper. The ad simply asks if anyone is willing to be his partner in time travel. He can’t guarantee their safety, and they must bring their own weapons.

Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) is a lazy magazine reporter who has decided that his next feature piece will be about this mysterious man who put the time travel ad in the paper. His real reasons for researching the guy are purely selfish, so he recruits a couple of interns to do the actual work. That’s where ‘Parks and Recreation’ star Aubrey Plaza comes in. She plays Darius Britt. Jeff has tasked her to go undercover and contact Kenneth about traveling back in time.

What follows is a tightly paced, wonderfully scripted movie about the anticipation one might expect if they were faced with the prospect of time travel. This is the third movie at Sundance that Mark Duplass was involved in this year, and it’s his best. He’s great in ‘Your Sister’s Sister’, but here he outshines even that great performance. He’s a notably paranoid, frantic man who’s building a time machine. At least, we think he’s building a time machine. We’re never quite sure.

‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ is a great little character-driven dramedy. Nothing feels extraneous or unnecessary. Not to mention that the ending is perfect. Come to find out, the filmmakers shot a different ending and then switched it up. That was a good idea. The way the movie ends is about as flawless as you can imagine.

Rating: ★★★★½

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