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{Fantasia 2020} Movie Review- Survival Skills

“Honesty… and a Commitment to Justice

Survival Skills (2020)

A movie that bills itself as a training video for police officers set sometime in the 1980’s seems like a weird sell to an audience that has grown ever more distrustful of police in general. Survival Skills by writer/director Quinn Armstrong takes a big creative swing and is mostly successful at humanizing its police officer protagonist, while offering a scathing critique of a system that forces all to dehumanize each other.

We follow Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell) from his first day working as a new cop on his beat in Tacoma, Washington. The movie does not use a normal narrative process. Rather we met Jim through a training video narrated by the incomparable Stacy Keach. Keach’s deadpan narration hearkens back to the safety videos of my own adolescence. I am relatively certain Keach narrated a driver’s ed video I watched in 1995 that still haunts my dreams. As the movie progresses Jim begins to stray from the narrator’s vision of what a police officer should be, especially when it comes to his treatment of a potential domestic abuse victim. As Jim’s character gets more complex Keach’s narrator begins to feel more malevolent. The movie never purports to have a traditional story yet as the film moves into the final act the conclusion feels satisfying. O’Donnell does a wonderful job of walking the gambit between playing the absurd lead character while carving out space to be complex. He is both an artificial actor in a training video and a real person who has to make important decisions even when all the options are bad. The movie’s tone and artifice seem to evoke a Lynchian perspective. Everything is just a bit off. However the almost comedic absurdity of the entire film allows it to comment about a number of different issues in a specific and creative fashion.

If there is any disappointment with this movie its that both female characters of import, Jenny, Jim’s girlfriend (Tyra Colar) and the victim of domestic violence Leah (Emily Chisholm) are not given the room to develop. Jenny only exists as an attachment of Jim. In fact when he leaves she just walks in circles around the house. Jim intentionally gains complexity throughout the movie. The same can not be said for his girlfriend who at best stands as another hurdle or problem Jim must deal with. Leah and her daughter Lauren (Madeline Anderson) certainly have more character development but both exist only in terms of Jim. The movie does have a brave conversation about domestic violence and the structural maze of getting help for those victims. Armstrong has gone on record discussing his own time working with domestic abuse survivors and how his own experiences helped inform the movie. Survival Skills never shies away from the frank conversation about how futile the system can be. However Armstrong uses restraint in turning the movies farcical eye on the violence itself. It is always real, perhaps the only consistent reality of the film.

At it’s core Survival Skills has a lot to say about the desire for service. While the reality of many police officers could be different, Jim wants to join the force to serve his community. He believes in the principles that the narrator discusses that every police officer should strive to uphold. It’s the reality that many of these public service jobs become that seems to break the films cold, robot like veneer. It’s when these cracks develop that the film really shines. Almost like a black and white movie that seeks to highlight specific frames with color, Survival Skills use its weird and sterile background to highlight moments of real human connection and complexity. The reality of police officers, teachers, counselors and many other professions that have altruistic ends, is that those ends are often never fully realized or that they are only achieved with great personal sacrifice. It is a message that resonated deeply with this teacher. You should check out Survival Skills as part of The Fantasia International Film Festival starting today.