Are you tired of having to endure countless Zoom meetings, Zoom parties, and Zoom legal hearings?...
...Would you like a break from looking at talking heads in boxes? How about watching a movie? Well, I have sour news because the movie you picked is the Covid-19 horror film Safer at Home. When it was announced back in 2020, Safer at Home received some notoriety as one of the first films made during the pandemic, about the pandemic, using the Zoom technology that became ubiquitous in the pandemic. Releasing this month, Safer at Home captures all the frustration of a Zoom party without the benefit of seeing your actual friends.
Set in the far-flung year of 2022, Safer at Home begins with a montage of stock footage and Associated Press videos that explains that Covid has mutated several times since 2020 and that the global death toll is well into the millions. We then jump into a Zoom party pre-game with longtime friends Jen (Jocelyn Hudon from The Strain) and Harper (Alisa Allapach, Henry Danger). We learn that Jen is pregnant and plans on telling her boyfriend during his birthday party tonight. Secrets shared, the party begins and we meet the faces we will be staring at for the next 90 minutes. There’s Jen’s boyfriend Evan (Dan J. Johnson, P-Valley), loving couple Liam (Daniel Robaire) and Ben (Adwin Brown), and new couple Oliver (Michael Kupisk) and Mia (Emma Lahana). Oliver is a bit of a troublemaker and he reveals that he has mailed everybody party favors. Our cast opens their envelopes and discovers that Oliver has mailed everybody ecstasy. Nobody points out that Oliver has just implicated them in what is a pretty serious federal offence (using the mail to send an illegal substance across state lines) but I definitely noticed. After some consternation from Liam and Ben, they are easily peer pressured into taking the designer drug along with everybody else. The party chugs along briefly before an argument breaks out. Things escalate rather quickly and whether it’s the drugs, the years of isolation, or the inherent lack of meaning for an adult to be celebrating their own birthday, violence erupts. The rest of the film focuses on the aftermath of this act of violence and the efforts to cover it up.
Safer at Home deserves some credit for undertaking something as ambitious as making a film during one of the most uncertain and unstable times in modern American history. Additionally, taking on subject matter as timely as government mandated lockdowns and domestic abuse is definitely worth exploring. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t seem to have much to say about these subjects; they merely exist within the world of the film.
Frustratingly, this film which is ostensibly about living through the pandemic and lockdowns is less frightening than the reality many Americans are living through. Despite being told at the opening that millions of people are dead, we never hear any of the characters say that they have lost anybody or that they are afraid of getting sick and dying. One character coughs a few times, opening the possibility that they may be ill, but this is never actually addressed. We are told that Oliver and his ex broke up, couldn’t we have learned that she died of Covid? I feel substantially more anxiety going to the supermarket than I did watching this film. Perhaps this is why the film spends no time discussing the psychological effects of living through Covid in the US.
The tagline, “Isolation Is A Killer” suggests that this will be a film about being trapped inside for years and the paranoia that can rip a loving couple apart when they are forced to be around each other constantly. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t deliver on this; instead, it quickly becomes a standard run and hide type of film. Anybody hoping for a study of monotony in the style of The Shining will be very disappointed.
Most of the problems within Safer at Home come from its script. Writer-director Will Wernick knows how to put up the framework for the story but quickly loses track of the details that would normally carry a story forward. It is revealed early on that Harper is studying to be a nurse and Ben is a lawyer. This information is clearly intended to come into play later in the story, but we lose track of it very quickly. One would expect Harper’s medical knowledge to factor into an attempt to save Jen’s life. Instead, Harper does little more than remark that Jen sure looks dead. And Ben’s legal expertise would likely be useful in figuring out how to deal with a nosy police officer or planning out what steps could be taken to have Evan safely submit himself to the cops. Not only does Ben not offer any of this information, the film brings in a second lawyer character to do what Ben probably should have from the beginning. Safer at Home is filled with these types of missteps and overlooked opportunities.
I can’t decide what motivated the decision to set the film less than 24 months in the future. Inside the homes of the characters, things seem no different from any city during the lockdown. Outside there is an increased police presence, but I wouldn’t say it’s much worse than contemporary Los Angeles. I suspect that it was intended to be revealed later in the film that this is not the first days of the lockdown but actually years into it. Then, at some point in production, it was decided to give this information at the top. Naturally, this is only a theory.
As the film is mostly comprised of static shots of people’s living rooms and car interiors, the likeability and talent of the cast is vitally important. In this respect, Safer at Home succeeds. Michael Kupisk’s Oliver is a delightful asshole with a heart of gold. Johnson’s performance as Evan is believably desperate and guilt ridden. When Jocelyn Hudon’s Jen fights with Evan, the film is as interesting and exciting as it ever gets. Through their performances we fully understand the resentment that has stewed for years between this couple. This scene is so good, I was more upset that it was over than I was that Jen was dead.
Despite the best efforts of its cast, Safer at Home never really connects with its audience. One would expect that watching a movie about people struggling with relationship problems while living through a global pandemic would be pretty relatable. Sadly, a weak script, virtually no thematic engagement, and the limitations of Zoom technology make this film not much fun to watch and difficult to connect to.
Safer at Home comes to select theaters, VOD and Digital from Vertical Entertainment on February 26th.
By Mark Gonzales
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