Survival Skills

Survival Skills ★★★★

Fantasia Film Festival 2020 screening!

Quinn Armstrong's Survival Skills starts as a self-reflexive meta-comedy set in a police training video. Its subject is Jim Williams (Vayu O'Donnell), a disturbingly cheerful rookie full of law enforcement protocols and ready to learn how to apply them in real life contexts. His wife Jenny (Tyra Colar) is equally optimistic and even more disturbingly naive and the film would resemble a very odd comedy in the vein of last year's Greener Grass except that the remainder of Jim's world is despairingly real, populated by a beleaguered and cynical partner, fearful victims, and underwhelming social services. Overseeing this uneasy reality is Stacy Keach in the role of The Narrator, a paternalistic Police Chief-type commissioned with the task of keeping this instructional video on the rails and keeping out some darker influences. Armstrong nimbly walks a delicate line that sustains the dark comedy of Survival Skills while also interrogating the challenging position the police find themselves in. He does so in a manner that humanizes the police, sympathizes with them, but also condemns them at times. The film revels in its analog format, exploiting cassette tape static and other artifacting to express emotional excess with a disturbing affect comparable to Robin Comisar's 2017 short, Great Choice. Survival Skills impressively shows how law enforcement becomes jaundiced in their world view, how they lack respect for the people they are tasked to protect, and how ineffectiveness gives way to frustration and anger - and it does so in specifically cinematic terms.