Movie Review: Can a Pandemic Zoom thriller work? “Safer at Home”

Making art — or at least a genre thriller — during the COVID lockdown is a daunting task, so hats off to the filmmakers of “Safer at Home.”

It’s more impressive as an exercise than thrilling, with a no-name cast and limited “action.” But they conjured up a movie out of a Zoom call split screen and a couple of handheld selfie-chases. In a medium that lives and dies by cinema’s control of time and the escalating suspense, which are largely a product of editing, they took a Hitchcockian shot at making movie that’s got very little editing.

“Safer at Home” is almost all performance and mise en scene. YOU try parking three couples and a single woman on four sets with limited visible backgrounds, captured on four split screens and getting a thriller out of that.

Thousands of years of live theater prove it can be done, but narrowing the frame of the story and the “world” you’re show in it requires a different way of thinking and a one-arm-tied-behind-your-back approach.

Three years into the pandemic (Dear Lord, let that NOT be the case.) and America ‘s lockdown has become the New Normal. Millions upon millions have died and curfews have gotten seriously strict.

But Evan’s (Dan J. Johnson) is having a birthday, so girlfriend Jen (Jocelyn Hudon) arranges a video conference birthday party.

They’re in LA, as is pal Ollie (Michael Kupisk) and his new live-in girlfriend Mia (Emma Lahana). Ben and Liam (Adwin Brown and Daniel Robaire) are in New York, and Harper (Alisa Allapach) is in Austin. That doesn’t mean they can’t share some laughs and a glass of champagne with their friend.

Maybe even a game or two. Maybe, if SOMEbody’s mailed “gift” reaches the other three locales, a little “Japanese” “off-the-chain Molly.

Damn, we’re still doing “off the chain” in the future? I lose that bet.

“Tonight is about forgetting…just one night, with NO consequences!”

After a little back and forth, they all ingest, they take up a round of “Never have I ever,” hard feelings come out and something bad happens, something the police would want to know about.

The movie scrambles to undo the “something bad,” and failing that, to keep the cops from finding out what happened and who might have caused it. They keep the conference going as assistance is offered, an escape is attempted and the evening escalates.

It doesn’t, really — escalate I mean. The little bit of running with a cell camera and the like amps up the energy enough to make us realize how dully static most of what came before was.

As with any movie with lots of split screen, figuring out which screen to concentrate on is an issue. As this was created during quarantine, finding something fascinating or at least interesting for characters to do within the confines of the four cinematic spaces can be a challenge.

And unless you think something covering her mouth and going “Oh my God” and somebody stumbling off to the toilet to throw up is scintillating cinema, you’d have to agree with me that the picture fails at this, too.

Never breaking free of its tight-screen limitations, it’s hard for any performance to register, although Hudon and Allapach have a close-up moment or two. Some of the most demanding acting takes place when characters step into the background of their one-fourth-size frame. Good luck getting the Academy’s attention with your power of emoting in that. We can’t even see faces.

Director and co-writer Will Wernick lets us see the storytelling problem-solving going on here, which is kind of fun. But the paucity of ideas is as obvious as the run-time, which is deceptive.

The film is bookended with long montages of pandemic coverage of the twice-impeached “former social influencer” botching the response to COVID-19. There’s even less “drama” scripted and shot here than you think.

Wernick is making a habit of “gimmick” movies like this. “No Escape” and “Escape Room” were his previous feature film outings, and “No Escape” at least had a lot more incident and actions and stuff going on.

“Safer at Home” is so trapped in its own gimmick, so myopic, so limited in action and lacking close-ups that build viewer empathy with characters, this becomes just an interested “failed” exercise.

MPA Rating: unrated, violence, drug above, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Jocelyn Hudon, Emma Lahana, Alisa Allapach, Adwin Brown, Dan J. Johnson, Daniel Robaire, Michael Kupisk

Credits: Directed by Will Wernick, script by Will Wernick, Lia Bozonelis. A Voltage film, a Vertical release.

Running time: 1:25

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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