To Here Knows When
The story begins with a personal advertisement in a newspaper. The individual who placed the ad is in search of a time-traveling partner. Candidates must bring their own weapon, the ad insists, and a safe return is not certain.
Intrigued, Jeff (Jake Johnson), a misanthropic writer for an alternative Seattle magazine, proposes a trip to the small town from which the ad originated and a profile of its author, who must be insane or at least a colorful character. Jeff also, it is later revealed, has a second motive: a desire to reunite with a long lost teenage flame (Jenica Bergere), a side storyline which proves thoughtful, touching, and realistic in its own subtle way.
He is joined by two interns, including Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a bright, but dour woman who fears her career and life are doomed to mediocrity, and it is she who is able to earn the trust of Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the sweet, but isolated and unusual aspiring time traveler. The central question, of course, becomes: can he time travel? Of course not, right? Then again, he is building a complicated machine, and there are government agents watching him from afar, so perhaps there is more to this curious individual than first meets the eye.
This film may surprise you. A modest independent production focused more on its cast of characters than high-concept storytelling or dramatic visuals, it at first seems a comic relative of Another Earth, Perfect Sense, and other recent films which used science-fiction concepts as metaphors for the human condition. Its spirit, however, is old-fashioned and in line with such seventies and eighties gems as Star Wars, E.T., Back to the Future, and John Carpenter's Starman.
The film is a portrait of a man who came of age with those films and, shy and rejected by his peers, invested in their exciting, optimistic vision of space, science, and the great beyond. Now an adult plagued by regret, he is trying to realize an enduring, fantastic dream and find redemption. It is absurd and hilarious, yes, but also a poignant and human ode to the Comic-Con spirit. Audiences will root for Kenneth to prove the cynics, bullies, and known laws of physics wrong.
With convincing performances (including television star and frequent scene stealer Plaza coming into her own as an indie leading lady as Darius), sharp dialogue, an economic and swift pace, and a dynamite third act, Safety Not Guaranteed is a small-scale triumph and a film destined to garner a significant cult audience. And believe me when I say this season will produce many films with one hundred times the budget, but nowhere near as many individual moments of genuine suspense and wonder.