4 stars

Safe Spaces (2019)

  • Narrative Feature/Official Selection
  • 92 Minutes/USA/2019
  • Comedy/Drama
  • Director: Daniel Schechter

Premise: A comedy about a New York City professor (Justin Long) who spends a week reconnecting with his family while defending his reputation over controversial behavior at his college.

The first scene of Safe Spaces introduces us to Josh (Justin Long), an adjunct professor teaching a creative writing class. The class is discussing a somewhat quiet woman’s story. We don’t hear the story itself, however, we learn that it recounts a date she had. After some needling from Josh, the student reveals the sexual nature of what happened on the date that she did not include in the story.

This opening scene and a scene near the end are wonderful bookends to this endearing, challenging, and funny comedy. Safe Spaces is about a man facing a professional backlash during a difficult point in his life in which his fractured family prepares for the death of his grandmother. The film provides a unique take on “cancel culture” and the social justice of our modern era by focusing almost entirely on Josh’s perspective of his professional and personal hardships.

Following the opening scene, Josh is confronted by a good cop/bad cop duo of comically oblivious school administrators (Becky Ann Baker and Samrat Chakrabarti) who make him aware of a complaint from another student in the class. The student feels that Josh’s needling of the somewhat quiet student was triggering. Which then leads to a boycott of sorts of his class and numerous meetings with the administrators. Thus, Safe Spaces creates in its central character an atmosphere of confusion and frustration at being singled out for an offense he wasn’t conscious of and the inability for him to repair the offense, much less defend himself against it.

What I really appreciate about this film is the way it handles this very delicate scenario. The complaint against Josh is leveled by a student who found his actions triggering because of trauma in her past. This alone is a serious matter and not something to address lightly. However, since we are seeing events unfold through Josh’s perspective, the film affords itself the opportunity to show how compartmentalized “woke culture” can be and how difficult it is to conduct oneself in an era of hyper-sensitivity (problematic, at times), and more progressive inclusivity (great, all times).

The comedy inherent within Safe Spaces comes from the reaction of people on both sides of controversy. In one scene, a student tells Josh that his peers didn’t like his story because it had no people of color in it, despite being a story from his Jewish summer camp at which there were no people of color. The student then suggests he could make a counselor character an African American but then wonders if that will cause a stir because that character smokes weed in the story. In another scene, Josh is under fire by the administrators for saying that being punctual is a sign of good upbringing. Samrat Chakrabarti, in brilliantly condescending deadpan, tells Josh that the student he spoke to has sleep apnea.

Through these comedic beats, Safe Spaces handles the social justice issues it presents in a way that doesn’t undercut the experiences of the student who launched the controversy but isn’t exactly unforgiving in its depiction of “woke culture.” In fact, the way the student’s complaint is resolved in the film is satisfying and thought-provoking in a way that shows how certain characters have grown from the experience and also how others are affected by things.

On the family drama side of Safe Spaces, Justin Long is accompanied by stellar performances by Richard Schiff, Fran Drescher, Kate Berlant, and Michael Godere as his family dealing with the impending death of his grandmother and with Josh’s own arrogance. The chemistry among the family and the different perspectives each character gives to the situation wonderfully brings you into the family drama.

There are fantastic performances all around but Richard Schiff, in particular, is just astounding. There is a scene where his character arc culminates in which Schiff knocks it out of the park on an emotional level that nearly brought me to tears.

Kate Berlant gives a terrific performance as Josh’s sister who provides a bridge between the film’s comedy and drama elements. Berlant’s heavy lifting of comedy and drama grounds the movie’s separate plot lines and invites the viewer to revel in both genres. In one scene, she finds herself bursting into Josh’s college dispute subplot and in one fell swoop, Berlant’s Jackie perfectly melds comedy and drama as the ramifications of that scene reach through to the end of the film. It also leads to a very heartfelt scene between her and Josh.

Safe Spaces is funny, heartfelt, and thought-provoking in its handling of a family drama as well as a social justice controversy. The film doesn’t provide answers or stances in one form or another. Instead, filmmaker Daniel Schechter wisely leaves the audience to form their own opinions and align themselves with whomever they choose. The film leaves a lot to chew on and that’s something I really appreciate about it.

Showtimes at HIFF28

  • Friday, Oct. 11 – 2:40pm – AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Monday, Oct. 14 – 3:10pm – AMC Castleton Square 14

Buy Tickets Now

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