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With just two days left to go at Sundance, it's not so much about seeing new movies as it is finally writing about the ones you've already seen. So with a slow day of movies ahead of us, Matt Patches and I recorded a video blog this morning outside the Library Theater, after we'd been turned away from a screening that apparently we showed up too late for. We instead used the moment to discuss three films we'd managed to both see-- the sci-fi-tinged comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, the disturbing psychological thriller Compliance, and the documentary Room 237, which I reviewed here.
Check out the video blog below for our thoughts on all three movies and making it through the final days of the festival-- below that I've written slightly longer reviews of both Safety Not Guaranteed and Compliance. We'll both be here through tomorrow night's awards ceremony, and I know I at least have a ton of reviews and interviews left to post, so even though the festival is winding down, our coverage isn't! Keep checking back to this page for all of my ongoing Sundance coverage, and for more from Matt Patches, you can check out his coverage at Hollywood.com.
Most of us are trained from an early age to be good members of society, to be helpful and polite, to obey authority, and to do the right thing. And as we know from plenty of real life examples, there are plenty of people who will abuse that compliant part of human nature, using even the slightest bit of authority to get otherwise good people to do awful, awful things. Craig Zobel's Compliance creates a tiny example of that phenomenon, crafting a queasy and eventually horrifying thriller about following the rules and trying to do right. When you learn at the end of the film that it's based on dozens o similar real-life stories, it's the final horrifying, sobering gut-punch in a film that's full of them.
In the opening of the film Zobel deftly sets up the world of Chick Wich, a fast food place in suburban Ohio run by Sandra (Ann Dowd), a woman at least 20 years older than her co-workers and well-liked, though not necessarily respected or included. As the Friday rush begins Sandra gets a phone call from a man who claims to be a police officer, explaining that her pretty young cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) has been accused of stealing from a customer, and needs to be held for questioning in the back room while they wait for the police to arrive. It's far from standard operating procedure, and we suspect the cop isn't who he says he is long before he's revealed to be Pat Healy on a home phone, instructing Sandra to do increasingly violating things to Becky, whose innocence also seems clear.
Zobel gives us just enough of the dynamics at Chick Wich for us to understand how this gets started, and the "cop" on the phone takes care of the rest, encouraging Sandra and asserting his authority, calmly answering all of their questions and promising the officers with badges will be on their way soon. It doesn't require that "based on a true story" tag at the end to understand how this might happen to you, how once a basic veneer of authority is given, that person can be capable of almost anything. Compliance is as simple and direct as a gun to the head, and while it's impossible not to squirm while you're watching it, it's impossible to stop thinking about when it's over.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Aubrey Plaza is handed the first leading role of her career in Safety Not Guaranteed, though when it begins she's playing a pretty familiar type-- a shy, sarcastic young woman, this time working as an intern at a Seattle magazine. But by the end of this quirky, funny and endearing comedy, Plaza manages to come into her own as a leading lady, striking up an unusual romance with a slightly older man (Mark Duplass) who is convinced he's built a working time machine.
The time travel aspect of Safety Not Guaranteed is mostly a red herring, since this is a movie that's much more about relationships than anything especially sci-fi. And it also eventually becomes a disappointment, as the film spends a great deal of time setting up both this central romance and another dalliance between Jake Johnson's caddish character and an old high school flame. It's all funny and entertaining, but when the ending starts rushing up, you have to wonder "Is this it?" Director Colin Trevorrow assembles his nutty story with such confidence that you assume he's got something terrific up his sleeve, and while Safety Not Guaranteed has a big finish, it's lacking the emotional or thematic depth to make it mean anything.
The movie, however, is a crowdpleaser, and should have no trouble finding an audience when it finally does get picked up by a distributor. It's no easy feat to make a romantic comedy that feels fresh, and the breezy, funny pace of Safety Not Guaranteed continues for quite a while before the bare patches begin to show. It's been a good year for comedies at Sundance, so I'd just been primed to expect a little more than this one had to offer.