[A series of daily updates on screenings at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. For more follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter @GeoffBerkshire.]
In the tradition of Sundance breakouts “Little Miss Sunshine” and “(500) Days of Summer,” the winning “Safety Not Guaranteed” looks to be the festival’s next crowd-pleaser likely to score with a mass audience. An alternately wistful and wacky romantic comedy with sci-fi flourishes, “Safety” follows unassuming Seattle magazine intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation” and “Funny People”), who volunteers for a research job with egotistical columnist Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni). Their task: investigate the writer of a classified ad seeking a partner for adventures in time travel, “safety not guaranteed.”
Darius takes the lead once they reach their destination, quickly identifying the local oddball who placed the ad, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and slowly befriending him. Meanwhile, Jeff reveals an ulterior motive for the trip; he wants to look up and hook up with a former high school flame (Jenica Bergere). Fortunately, neither of these relationships turns out quite like anyone expects.
It’s a breakthrough feature debut for director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly, but the biggest discovery may be Plaza, who has surprisingly sharp leading lady cred. The 27-year-old comedienne’s a reliable scene-stealer in her supporting roles, but her deadpan persona doesn’t fit neatly into the big screen romantic comedy norm. Fortunately, there’s more to her success in “Safety” than just defying cookie cutter casting. Plaza nails both the use of humor as a defense mechanism and the emotional fragility of an outsider making an unexpected connection. As Darius and Kenneth get to know each other better she realizes he may be crazy, or he may have a way of seeing the world that only seems crazy.
While “Safety” is unmistakably indie—modestly scaled and free of the broad pandering typical of Hollywood romcoms—it’s also appealing and accessible in a way many of the fest’s smirking quirky films aren’t. Thanks to the strong cast (bit players Soni and Bergere are as refreshing as the leads) and daffy sensibility (action setpieces including a break-in and a car chase are played instead as small, hilariously haphazard moments), it’s a little movie worthy of a big audience.
Quick hits on more Sundance 2012 titles:
- “Bachelorette”: Arriving at Sundance with one of the fest's most sparkly casts and a marketable hook—it's the indie "Bridesmaids"!—this raunchy wedding comedy appeared to scare away buyers with its very dark, very un-"Bridesmaids"-like sensibilities and an undeniably nasty streak. Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan star as longtime friends separated by life but reunited for the wedding of a friend (Rebel Wilson) they always looked down on. None of the women can quite believe they're not in stable, happy relationships, but spend a few minutes with any of them and you'll know why.
The film takes its girls behaving badly conceit seriously, piling on the drugs, meaningless sex, narcissism and acid-tongued dialogue. But just because they're unlikable doesn't prevent playwright and writer-director Leslye Headland from trying to make you care about them. Each of the three leads is given a love interest (James Marsden as the playboy best man who clashes and sparks with Dunst, Kyle Bornheimer as a nice guy infatuated with Fisher since high school, and Adam Scott as Caplan's perhaps too perfectly matched ex) and a substantial issue to overcome (Dunst's selfishness, Fisher's suicidal tendencies, Caplan's drug and alcohol addiction). The predictable results aren't particularly convincing, but they do give each of the terrific trio of leading ladies individual moments to shine, which turns out to be just enough to keep this uneven movie from becoming a total turn-off.
- “Price Check”: Indie stalwart Parker Posey's performance as a boss from hell elevates this exceedingly modest workplace dramedy from writer-director Michael Walker. Centered on Pete (Eric Mabius), a former record label exec now working a soul-sucking corporate job for a struggling supermarket chain, the film explores the harsh realities of balancing a professional and personal life and the compromises and sacrifices people make in the search for success. Although "Price Check" was made on a microbudget (and looks it), the story is compelling, thought-provoking and well-acted enough to stand out over some of Sundance's flashier, but shallower, premieres.
Check out the full collection of 2012 Sundance Film Festival diaries