Safe Spaces (2019) – Film Review
Director: Daniel Schechter
Cast: Justin Long, Kate Berlant, Lynn Cohen
by Rosie Hargreaves
Safe Spaces is an American “dramedy” centred on the life of Josh, an immature and self-centred creative writing professor at a non-descript New York university. On the face of things, Josh has a lot going on: he’s coping with the imminent death of his grandmother, juggling the responsibilities of his new career in teaching, and trying to ignite some genuine intimacy with his sexually aggressive partner. The narrative follows Josh, as he navigates, often unsuccessfully and mindlessly, through the different dilemmas in his life.
The opening of the film starts uncomfortably. Josh encourages a female student to divulge intimate details of her recent date with the rest of the class, after mocking her penning of the event for being flat and disingenuous. The scene is done well; it shows Josh’s good intentions and passion but also the discomfort of many of his students, and therefore, Josh’s lack of awareness to the feelings of those around him. Josh doesn’t realise that he’s in questionable territory, and is so caught up in proving his point, that all professional boundaries seem to fade away.
As the rest of the plot unfolds it becomes clear that Josh isn’t particularly professional, nor responsible, or even likeable. Despite this, for the first half of the film, Josh manages to come across as slightly sympathetic. Like the understanding university advisor, I felt genuine pity for Josh, but also exasperation in his lack of compassion. This dynamic of having a character who fluctuates between being both sympathetic and unlikeable gave the lead, and the film, a bit of an edge.
To couple with Josh’s issues at work, are his dysfunctional familial relationships. His sister Jackie, played excellently by Kate Berlant, is a lot like Josh: unhinged, spoilt and ambling her way through life. Josh’s older brother, David (Michael Codere), is less fleshed out. He’s the responsible one (so seemingly, less worthy of any real depth). Richard Schiff – their father – gives the strongest performance: meek and placid, desperate to avoid conflict and for his two families to get along.
Josh’s mother is another conflicted character, juggling accepting her mother’s looming demise with the fury and heartbreak of keeping her alive and comfortable at all costs. The lovely Lynn Cohen plays the terminally ill matron of the family. She is connivingly sweet and gives a touching performance, but lacked real depth. The characters talk about how much they love their grandma, they say the words, but it doesn’t seem authentic. Apart from the fact he can talk openly about sex in front of her and mimic her voice, there’s no real closeness evident between Josh and his grandmother.
Regardless of the lack of authenticity between the characters, it’s clear that the cast give it their all. At the points where scenes didn’t work out it was down to poor, unbelievable and stilted lines. But the cast all truly put their heart and soul into the work, even when Justin Long awkwardly times his older brother’s lectures. This does not serve to portray how childish and immature Josh is, it just comes off as perplexing. This has little to do with Long’s performance, but more to do with poor directing and writing.
The film’s saving grace, however, comes in a reconciliatory final act – but the key moment is when it returns to the original scene in which Josh made a student feel unsafe in his room. He finally listens, really listens, and apologises. It feels like a scene we have been waiting a long time for – and it brings this otherwise quite messy film together neatly.