Netflix Instant Files: Safety Not Guaranteed

safety not guaranteed car

Belinda: “He wasn’t the kind of guy that you could easily fit into your life…he was, weird.  I guess we’ve all had one of those guys, right?”
Darius: “Yeah…yeah, I know what you mean.”

Safety Not Guaranteed is a film that defies expectations.  Even by saying that I’m messing with yours.  It’s not a movie that looks like it’s going to be terrible and ends up being amazing, or the other way around.  Rather, when you expect the movie to zig it zags — not in an incredible mind-blowing twist way, but just in a small way that keeps you on your toes.  You keep parsing for what the film is doing and saying each time you start to get comfortable, thinking you know what kind of movie it is.

safety not guaranteed working

L-R: Darius, Jeff, and Arnau.

On paper, Safety Not Guaranteed is a quirky indie comedy.  It’s that, but its quirkiness isn’t annoying or even that predictable.  Our protagonist is Darius (Aubrey Plaza), an intern at a magazine in Seattle.  She’s assigned to a project working for Jeff (Jake Johnson).  They’re heading a few hours north to investigate the person who published an eyebrow-raising ad in the classifieds: “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me.  This is not a joke…You’ll get paid after we get back.  Must bring your own weapons.  Safety not guaranteed.  I have only done this once before.”

Jeff, aided by Darius and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), plans to answer the ad.  He wants to learn more about the guy, find out if the ad’s a joke, a hoax, or if the person’s really serious.  Once they get to the town of Ocean View, however, the interns learn that Jeff’s planning on letting them do most of the work.  He had an ulterior motive for the company-funded trip: to reconnect with an old flame from his teenage summer spent in the town.

We have our cast of characters and our familiar plot.  Jeff’s a lazy jerk, Darius is a disaffected 20-something who can’t muster enthusiasm for anything, not even the fake smiles needed to get a waitress job, Arnau, laptop ever by his side, is the shy nerd, and Kenneth, the guy who posted the ad, is the token crazy, stuck-in-childhood character found in so many indie comedies.

Kenneth in training.

Kenneth in training.

All of the above is true.  But it’s not the whole truth.  Jeff’s definitely a jerk, but he’s a well-meaning enough one, and he comes through in the end.  Arnau doesn’t believe that the science fiction and fantasy of his video games is real, Darius is the one who first really gets interested in their story, and Kenneth (Mark Duplass), as they all come to realize, might be weird, but he’s also not as crazy as he seems.  In other words, Safety Not Guaranteed does a fantastic job of humanizing all of its characters, of making them more than what we expect of a quirky movie that almost seemed to bypass theaters and head straight for Netflix.

In that way, Safety Not Guaranteed is about the loss of innocence.  All of the characters, save for one, have lost it.  They find it again during the course of the movie.  Jeff’s seeking it out with his old flame, but he finds it instead in the same place Darius does: with Kenneth.

Kenneth’s not Peter Pan: he’s grown up.  But he hasn’t allowed the process to make him lose faith in the things in which he believes.  In his case, his faith in time travel and how it can enable us to erase our past errors.  Darius goes undercover as someone interested in answering Kenneth’s ad.  At first, she’s just there for the story.  Then Kenneth starts to win her over.  Unlike everyone else, Kenneth doesn’t stand on any pretext and he always means what he says.  Eventually, his belief is infectious, at least to Darius.  She has things she’d like to change about her past, and it’s hard not to believe someone so earnest.

safety not guaranteed truck

Darius starts to get sucked in.

Even as parts of Kenneth’s story start to unravel, others are strengthened.  He believes enough in his cause to steal expensive scientific equipment to further it.  He may have fudged parts of the story he gives Darius for why he wants to return to the past — or perhaps, in some way, he really thinks what he says is true.

He is, as the quote above states, weird.  But he’s also nice, sweet in his way, and the only genuine person in the entire film.  Even the cynical and distracted Jeff, who pursued the story in part because he thought it would be funny, sits up and takes notice in Kenneth when it seems like the government might be doing so as well.

I mirrored the characters.  I never expected Safety Not Guaranteed to go in that direction, but I’m so glad it did. Not because it legitimized what was otherwise a predictable plot, but because of Kenneth.  Like Darius, I was growing to like him.  Because he was just a character to me, it didn’t really matter if he was crazy or not.  I have a high suspension of disbelief, and anyway, stories about crazy people can be interesting.

What I love about Safety Not Guaranteed is that Kenneth might not be totally all there.  At best he is just a bit strange (which, hey, aren’t we all?) and at worst, he might have a screw or two loose.  The fact that he just might be onto something doesn’t negate that aspect of his personality.  We don’t need him not to be weird – we’ve grown to like him that way.  When the plot develops into something more, he’s fleshed out even further without changing any of the prior things we’ve learned.

safety not guaranteed clock room

Darius inspects Kenneth’s notes.

In that way, Kenneth is the true lead character of the movie, and we’re Darius.  We’re jaded and bored with our movie options.  We trawl Netflix Instant looking for something interesting to watch, but our expectations are low.  In some cases that means we’re never disappointed, but it’s hard for us to get that enthusiastic about anything we’ve seen, either.

We head into Safety Not Guaranteed with that mindset.  It’s not negative or positive, just a bland neutral.  Kenneth’s sincerity pulls us in.  We find ourselves liking and rooting for him even if we still don’t believe in what he’s saying.  Soon we don’t need to believe anymore, because whether or not we do doesn’t really matter: at this point, we’ve gotten our enthusiasm back.  Whatever comes afterward is all the sweeter for it.


You can also find Safety Not Guaranteed for rental or purchase on Amazon.