Review by Sean Boelman
Though it was made before recent events would shine a light on the issue being discussed in the film, Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills is a terrifyingly relevant satire. Entirely unexpected and having a surprising level of emotional heft, this may not be the movie we want to watch right now, but it is the one we need to be watching.
Built as if it were a lost police training video from the 1980s, the movie follows a young and idyllic police officer who, after being assigned to an emotionally-trying domestic violence case, finds himself confronting the challenges of a job in law enforcement. Because of how true-to-life some of the themes ring, it’s not an easy watch by any means, but it poses important questions.
The film starts out in a joke-filled and parody-like way, before evolving into something darker a la Adult Swim’s Infomercials, before eventually reaching its final form of somber and meditative drama. These tonal shifts are jarring at first, but are ultimately a big part of what will allow the material to stick with the viewer long after the credits roll.
Armstrong should definitely be applauded for the depth with which he examines the failures of the criminal justice system. Although there is certainly a lot more happening on a larger scale, this exploration of how a system that is designed to help people fails those who are most in need can be the conversation-starter that is needed for cinema to address deeper issues.
The characterization in the movie is a bit questionable, as it could be read as defensive of the “good egg” cops, but Armstrong’s heart is undeniably in the right place. Admittedly, the film misses an opportunity by not giving more of a voice to the victim in this situation, something which all too often happens in the real world as well, but its efforts are noble.
Vayu O’Donnell’s performance as the “everyday” cop Jim is absolutely amazing, morphing from something charming into something haunting. The amount of range he is asked to show in the tonal shift moments alone is absurd, and is made even more impressive by the fact that this is his first starring role. Character actor Stacy Keach is also memorable as the narrator of the faux training video.
The visual style that Armstrong brings to the table is also very interesting. Of course, a lot is done in an attempt to recreate the retro feel of a 1980s training video, but he also does some intriguing and tongue-in-cheek stuff with the form by allowing the characters to be a bit more self-aware and break the fourth wall.
Survival Skills is one of those movies that may be a bit off-putting initially, but it grows in charm as it sits with you over time. It’s definitely one of the more thoughtful and ambitious things on the festival circuit right now, and it is deserving of more attention.
Survival Skills screens on demand (geoblocked to Canada) as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs August 20-September 2.