Cinequest Review: Survival Skills
One of micro-budget filmmaking’s most prominent obstacles is the sheer look of the finished product. Not necessarily in terms of the design, or the staging, or the camerawork itself — all of which can surpass films of much larger scale by dent of the creativity and skill of the talent involved. Rather, the issue is more one of technological cost and the price of achieving that hard-to-define visual polish instinctually associated with a more “professional” project (unfair as that may be). Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills presents a novel solution to this dilemma: by intentionally styling the film in the vein of 1980s workplace videos — with all the fuzziness, soft lighting, and VHS tracking lines that we remember — Armstrong sidesteps the visual issue entirely by playing on our familiarity with a bygone medium and in the process gives the impression of a much higher-budget production. Though the film is expertly shot by cinematographer Allie Schultz, the visual quirk could be written off as a mere gimmick if it wasn’t functioning in service of the screenplay’s narrative or thematic elements, but fortunately Armstrong’s vision is strong enough to mostly assuage those concerns as well. Survival Skills takes the form of a 80s training module for new recruits in the fictional Middletown Police Department, with a gruff and grizzled narrator (Stacy Keach) demonstrating the ins and outs of police work through the actions of Officer Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), a digital construct brought to life for the purpose of serving as the platonic ideal of a police officer. But one of Jim’s first cases rattles him, leading him to become more and more personally invested in the matter despite the narrator’s attempts to dissuade him. The nature of this case is where Armstrong — acting as both writer and director — starts to wander into particularly treacherous territory. As is almost certainly the intention, the insertion of a significant subplot involving domestic violence into what starts out as a winkingly comical satire is jarring, and signifies a turn into a much darker territory — the humor is still there, but no longer feels at a comfortable remove. For the most part, Armstrong successfully navigates this delicate terrain, wisely keeping most of the truly disturbing events offscreen while not being afraid of directly confronting the ramifications of domestic abuse. O’Donnell is particularly effective as a blank slate who becomes much less of a non-entity when confronted with the reality of an ongoing offense he may be powerless to stop, and Keach brings a menacing gravitas to his role as the establishment figure gradually losing control of a dire situation. At times the director’s reach exceeds his grasp — interesting questions surrounding gender dynamics are raised but mostly left unexplored — but, ultimately, Survival Skills’ most admirable accomplishment is managing to function as a searing critique of law enforcement bureaucracy while simultaneously reinforcing the capacity for true kindness and empathy in those who choose the path of a public servant. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but one Armstrong and company handle with the deftness you would expect from much more seasoned filmmakers, making for an impressive debut indeed.