“A forgettable and bland romance-drama clichés of two wounded souls.”
Safelight, a directorial debut by writer-director Tony Aloupis, is a montage of drama clichés. Featuring archetypal tragic characters, it is essentially about two troubled souls who find solace and healing in each other.
The movie is set in a 1970s Southern California desert town. Charles (Evan Peters) is a 17-year-old timid and crippled boy. Born with a deformed foot, he was abandoned by his mother when he was still two. While presently taking care of his terminally ill dad (Jason Beghe), Charles also works at a truck stop convenience store owned by amusing, thrice-divorced Peg (Christine Lahti). On top of that, he is constantly bullied by a trio on his way home from school. Charles take comfort in photography, made possible with a camera inherited from a brother he lost to Vietnam.
Charles is attracted to Vicki (Juno Temple), a gentle and kind-hearted 18-year-old hooker who is fond of sporting heart-shaped sunglasses. Constantly physically and verbally abused by boyfriend-turned-to-pimp Skid (Kevin Alejandro), she is rescued by Charles with a baseball bat during an encounter one night. This leads to a tacit friendship between the two.
When a photography contest is launched at Charles’ school, Vicki offers to take him to different lighthouses in California, a subject which Charles wanted to take pictures of. Their weekend excursions soon involve each other’s family. While Vicki impresses Charles’ dad, Charles help her reconnect with her mother and sisters. However, a disagreement breaks between the two and Skid comes in to take back what is his.
Safelight is a depressing and frustrating movie. Both the plot and the characters are poorly developed. Its slow, bland and low-key story is filled with clichés – from wounded major characters to over-maniacal love triangle and to its highly-predictable kind-of-accidental-gunshot ending. It is also uneven as it feels unsure what to do next. It does not put extra efforts in establishing the romance between the two as all dramatic and romantic elements, after being started, are suddenly ignored and put aside. It does not pay due attention to the sexual undercurrents between them, possibly leading to a coming-of-age story arc for Charles and to a satisfying journey of love for Vicki.
Form beginning to end, the film circles around the idea of finding healing to the two wounded souls. Apparently, every action and conversation must always imply the healing factor. So what results is that the actions and mostly dialogues are forced and unnatural. This is very apparent when dying dad leaves some words of wisdom to his promising son. Hearing those overused lines is cheesy and torturous.
The film’s few good points are its nice photography and solid acting from its capable actors. Although they have no chemistry, both Peters and Temple sensitively played their moments and projected tenderness and vulnerability. They are good character actors and their best moments are their quiet scenes together. While Alejandro overplayed but still looked genuinely terrifying, Lahti and Beghe lent effective support to the younger stars.
With its depressing atmosphere and frustrating plot, Safelight is excruciating to watch. The committed performance of its cast is not enough to salvage the movie.