Timid boy meets abused prostitute, they fall in love, she reveals a heart of gold, and the two strike a relationship despite their vastly different lifestyles – stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Actually, I’ll stop myself, because Safelight feels like every schmaltzy romantic drama you’ve ever seen. The whole “disillusioned young girl forced into a life of debauchery” angle isn’t exactly fresh, and filmmaker Tony Aloupis doesn’t do much in the way of relationship building to get your heart thumping with joy. Rather, you’ll find yourself just trying to muster the energy to stay awake long enough for Aloupis to work through his typical rom-dram roadmapping, while resisting the growing urge to scream “PULL THIS CAR OVER RIGHT NOW.”
Evan Peters trades his Quicksilver speed to play a crippled gas attendant named Charles, who finds himself stuck in a run-down town with no promise. That’s until he “saves” a female companion named Vicki (Juno Temple) from a rough interaction with her jealous pimp, Skid (Kevin Alejandro). Charles and Vicki strike a quick bond, using each other to escape their respective societal prisons, and it’s not long before they find comfort in one another’s company. Together, the pseudo-couple spends time photographing lighthouses for a school competition Charles hopes to win, looking to these erected beacons for some momentary peace. But can they truly avoid their cruel pasts and start over?
OF COURSE THEY CAN. Because what kind of movie would Safelight be without a cavalcade of Hallmark-y sentiments? It’s almost as if Aloupis strives to challenge himself by seeing how many emotional daggers he can insert into Charles and Vicki’s journey, seeking the cheapest route to sympathy. All of the following somberness plays a hand in this tragic love story: psychical disabilities, abusive fathers, ill parents, non-existent parental figures, prostitution, bullying, low self esteem, insincerity, familial deaths, and murder. To quote Clerks‘ own Mr. Dante Hicks, “What’s your encore? Do you, like, anally rape my mother while pouring sugar in my gas tank?” Inappropriate (blame Kevin Smith), but you get the point.
Drama has to be genuine. We have to feel the strife in each character, yearn for their betterment, and beg for something more. You can’t just introduce a slew of disheartening plot points that pile up like a continuous barrage of kicks to life’s nutsack and hope that our saddened state clutches onto the few bright moments that exist in a movie like Safelight.
Yet that’s exactly what Aloupis does, with a heavy hand for soapy dramatics. Safelight is the equivalent of someone saying they express “all the feels,” – a faceless generalization of emotions that doesn’t properly address a single one.
It’s this lack of genuine soul that derails Safelight early and often, which seeps its way into each actor’s performance. For a brief moment, let’s just ignore the bland soundtrack scored by an old church-going organ granny (presumably), the boring visuals, and obvious scripting. Without all that drab filler material, we’re left with a boy who so desperately needs to escape his barren suburbia (Charlie) and a beautiful young girl looking for a second chance (Vicki). We rely on Evan Peters and Juno Temple to corral our fluttering hearts, but there’s just no spark between the two (despite an “enlightening” adventure). Their exchanges are bone-dry, and we’re left stranded without any characters worthy of our exploited emotional state.
Maybe I’m being a little harsh. Charlie and Vicki, at their least, resemble actual people who could exist in our society, hard-luck included. The same can’t be said for Skid, the film’s thuggish villain(?) whose motivations are as muddied as his fashion sense. He obviously has strong feelings for Vicki, which he (confusingly) displays through drunken beatings and dehumanizing attacks, and will appear out of nowhere just to bang on gas station windows in an attempt to give Charlie a jolt. This shirtless deviant bounces all around the baddie spectrum, but his pulp-comic presentation doesn’t fit into Aloupis’s bigger picture when juxtaposed against such a stale, musty production.
While there is safety in the light, Tony Aloupis might have played it a little TOO safe with this run-of-the-mill Kleenex fodder. The stakes never feel drastically high, the acting is rather wooden, characters lack any sort of enthusiasm, and the film’s climax spirals wildly out of control far too quickly – then it’s right back to rainbows and unicorns. You know, because love will save our souls and all that hippie malarkey. Again, I’ll echo: stop me if you’ve heard this before. Because you have. There’s been an uncountable onslaught of films like Safelight, lazily pulling on the same few heartstrings over, and over, and over – and it doesn’t look like there’s a stop to this endless parade of unworthy tears in sight.
Boy meets girl, girl frees boy's spirit, audience falls asleep - Safelight is a sluggish romantic drama that we've seen far too many times.