Safety Not Guaranteed was one of my most anticipated movies of this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it certainly didn't disappoint. It has nearly everything I want to see in a film: memorable characters, a great story, comedy, drama, romance, and a time travel twist. I've been waiting a few days to be blown away by a movie, and this one fit the bill. It's the quintessential geek festival movie, but it never felt like it was pandering; it kept the characters in the forefront, and that, among many other reasons, is why I loved it.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a magazine in Seattle. She's dry, funny, and sarcastic - basically the Aubrey Plaza stereotype. To avoid refilling toilet paper dispensers, Darius volunteers to accompany a writer, Jeff (Jake Johnson), to a nearby city to do a profile on a guy who placed an ad on Craigslist for a time travel partner. With nerdy intern Arnau (Karan Soni) added to their motley crew, they set off to go undercover and see what this guy is all about. They discover Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), an eccentric grocery store employee who is totally serious about his ad, and who eventually takes Darius under his wing as a trainee for their upcoming "mission." As she learns more about him, Darius is charmed by his simple worldview and starts to wonder if genius lies somewhere beneath Kenneth's kooky exterior. Meanwhile, Jeff spends his time trying to hook up with an old high school love interest and getting the other intern laid for the first time.
Colin Trevorrow's direction is subdued and controlled, allowing the characters of Derek Connolly's excellent script to take us through this story without any flashy distractions or unnecessary flourishes. It's restrained, but it's there - unlike some other performance-heavy films that seem like someone just turned a camera on and left it running, Trevarrow uses his style to accent important moments. (A robbery sequence was a comedic highlight, while a nighttime campfire song was beautifully shot to enhance the romantic potential in the scene.)
Plaza's performance turns from the wry stereotype into something much more hopeful and optimistic, providing audiences with the rare opportunity to watch an Aubrey Plaza character smile unironically on screen. Duplass is tremendous, making Kenneth Calloway one of the most fascinating characters I've seen on film in recent memory. He's weird, sure, but there's a sincerity to the way he talks about his mission and dispenses combat advice that is more endearing than embarrassing. In the hands of a less capable actor, this character could have been painted more like someone with a mental illness than a childlike passion. It's a fine line, and Duplass always stays on the correct side of it.
The comedy is charming, and the dramatic moments - many involving the personal reasons for Kenneth and Daruis wanting to go back to the past - are poignant and engaging. Much of the movie is spent in a back and forth regarding the legitimacy of Kenneth's time travel abilities. The entire movie builds to one singular moment, the culmination of events that will finally answer the question we've been asking the whole time: is he crazy, or is this for real? I wouldn't dare reveal the answer here, but the buildup to this scene was so effective that it gave me chills. Safety Not Guaranteed is an instant classic and a must-see for time travel junkies.