Screen life movies – films that take place within the confines of a laptop or cellphone screen – are nothing new, even if the coronavirus pandemic has given them new life. Like their cousin, found footage, they've become most associated with horror, although missing persons drama Searching proved that crime flicks and thrillers can work just as well. Any film that depends on tension, it seems, can get away with it. Well, almost, as online-party-gone-awry Safer at Home proves.
In lieu of the trip to Las Vegas a bunch of old friends had planned for Evan (Johnson) on his birthday, they decide to have a Zoom party – and, of course, like all insufferable late-20-somethings, they decide to take some E to prove they're still cool. Slim chance. Evan bickers with his girlfriend, Jen (Hudon), as Ollie (Kupisk) and his new girlfriend Mia (Lahana) start making out on-camera, while fuddy-duddy, prematurely middle-aged couple Ben (Brown) and Liam (Robaire) fuss. Deprived of a partner to define her, solitary Harper (Allapach) has little purpose than to ask questions to move the story along. Some are in Los Angeles, some in New York, some in Austin, but the locations often make no difference, and in fact ablate the pandemic tension. Most of the narrative would make exactly the same sense without the lockdown setting, which seemingly serves only to add a certain timeliness. Yet the fact that it's set in 2022, and director/co-writer Wernick adds footage of former President Trump for unnecessary context, just leaves the inclusion of the pandemic feeling more like an intrusion. (Also, does anyone need to see more of him, when life is stressful enough already? I think not.)
The party is already so lame that you'll wonder why no one claims their connection has dropped and just bails, but they all stick around until disaster. The fracture point comes with a push (or was it a fall?) and a horrible accident. Looking from afar, the friends start making consistently bad, stupid, incoherent decisions, and giving even worse advice with no sense of comeuppance.
Moreover, the screen life component does not really add much here. In part, it's a problem with the technology. Only a couple of years ago, a film on cell phones looked sufficiently grainy and glitchy that it added an immediacy, as well as giving an excuse for any visual clunkiness. Now even a low-end webcam captures digital images that would have made Collateral-era Michael Mann drool, and so any screen life drama needs more than some split-screen visuals and some simulated shutter roll. That means a screen life movie needs more – whether visual flair, or just the tightness of editing shown in last year's pandemic/Zoom-era gold standard, Host. Similarly themed (the British supernatural horror was also a pandemic-era Zoom party), it was perpetually visually enthralling, something Safer at Home never achieves.
What Host really had, and Safer at Home lacks, are credible characters. Instead, we're confronted with the same nonsensical solipsism that made everyone glad that Cloverfield had monsters: Without them, it's an annoying night with a bunch of squabbling dummies and their weak, occasionally nonsensical motivations (the fact that the whole narrative depends on no one making one simple, obvious phone call is infuriating). The audience is required to invest their emotional energy in seven people who consistently make terrible decisions and give even worse advice, and it's not worth the return. "There's nothing we can do from this side of the screen," one of the septet ruminates. How true.
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