2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Discomfort, both in terms of comedy and drama, reigns supreme in “Safe Spaces.” This dramedy has a lot on its mind and tackles quite a bit, even if some of the theme explorations are scattershot. At times, the balance between funny and serious can be off, but it always comes back around. Funnier than it needs to be, while also more serious than expected, this is a variation on a subgenre. Moreover, it’s a perfect showcase for Justin Long, who’s uniquely qualified for the central role. Rarely has he been better, helping to bring this film across the finish line.
“Safe Spaces” is at its best when it’s not trying to mix genres. Long and his character are the only aspects that work in this regard. Otherwise, the serious and the silly fare better when kept apart. Filmmaker Daniel Schechter doesn’t quite trust either side of the coin, which dulls some of the effectiveness. At the same time, not only is Long the exception to the rule, supporting players like Fran Drescher and Richard Schiff do quiet, powerful work, easing the awkwardness. The film sometimes feels like it’s taking two steps forward and one step back, preventing it from greatness. But it’s still more than good enough to recommend, and surprisingly enjoyable, to boot.
It’s not going to be a good week for Josh (Long), an adjunct professor at a New York City college, he teaches creative writing and likes to think he’s young and ‘with it.’ During the opening sequence, however, his cool teaching style gets him into trouble. That alone would be a problem, as he only makes it worse whenever he tries to explain himself. Unfortunately, his grandmother (Lynn Cohen) is dying, bringing his bickering family together, while his sister (Kate Berlant) crashes at his place; chaos reigns in Josh’s life.
As he attempts to navigate the collegiate world of having triggered a student and made his classroom an unsafe space to her, Josh also is dealing with trying to involve his father (Schiff) in the family affairs. Divorced from Josh’s mother Diane (Drescher), he hasn’t been involved in his children’s or grandchildren’s lives much, and Josh wants him to say goodbye to the family matriarch before it’s too late.
“Safe Spaces” mixes humorous moments involving Josh only making a given situation worse through his goofiness and selfishness with serious ones involving impending grief. That doesn’t even factor in his brother (Michael Godere) blaming him for sleeping with a babysitter, Josh’s new Italian live-in girlfriend, or any number of other circumstances that serve to complicate Josh’s life further. The plot is undeniably over-stuffed, though largely most situations are resolved in satisfying manners.
Without question, the acting is what makes this movie what it is. Justin Long delivers a full bodied turn, though the performances of Fran Drescher and Richard Schiff are just as impressive. The latter two add color to characters that might have seemed a simple on the page. As for Long, his stuttering comedy chops are in full effect, though this picture plays a bit with his fast-talking wit. Here, it’s not embraced, but shown as a flaw. In addition, he’s given some heavy emotional scenes to work through, and he is up to the task. In many ways, this is his most complete performance to date. The rest of the cast, including the aforementioned Kate Berlant, Lynn Cohen, and Michael Godore, all help add dimension to potentially one-note characters.
Daniel Schechter bites off more than he can chew here, though the cast bails him out. The uncomfortable humor involving Long is very amusing, even if it’s never quite figured out how much sympathy is meant to be dolled out to Josh. The heart of the relationship is the family’s passing matriarch, which is touching, though the commentary on young people being triggered and what constitutes a safe space is muddled. Schechter crams too much into his script while keeping other elements simple behind the camera. Had the cast not been up to the task, it’s fair to assume this would have come up a bit short.
All in all, “Safe Spaces” does more right than it does wrong. Long is great, the supporting cast is vibrant, and enough of the comedy/drama works. The film is consistently engaging and entertaining, even if the skeleton of an even better movie is in sight. Long often appears in the Tribeca lineup, so he’s become a bit of a mainstay. This film is further evidence that his presence should be a welcome one at the fest.