VOD film review: Safe Spaces
Script and direction8
Matthew Turner | On 12, Dec 2020
Director: Daniel Schechter
Cast: Justin Long, Kate Berlant, Lynn Cohen, Michael Godere, Fran Drescher, Richard Schiff
Watch Safe Spaces online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Written and directed by Daniel Schechter, Safe Spaces (known as After Class in the US) stars Justin Long as Josh Cohn, a creative writing professor at an unnamed New York university. Keen to connect with his students, Josh pushes a female student to reveal embarrassing sexual details about a real-life incident she has fictionalised for his class, and is subsequently horrified when another student reports him to the Dean, saying she felt triggered by the incident and unsafe in his class.
As if things weren’t bad enough at work, Josh has a tonne of personal problems to deal with too: his beloved grandmother Agatha (Lynn Cohen) is dying in hospital, which is causing friction between family members; his father (Richard Schiff) is distancing himself from his previous family because of his possessive second wife; his sister (Kate Berlant) has moved herself, her boyfriend and her podcast into his apartment; and his younger Italian girlfriend (Silvia Morigi) is into slapping and being slapped during sex, a predilection that Josh doesn’t share.
Throughout the film, Schechter’s sharply observed script perfectly conveys an all-too relatable sense of chaos and frustration, as Josh’s problems keep piling up and his best efforts to sort things out just end up making everything worse. More importantly, many of Josh’s problems are of his own making and the script refuses to let him off the hook, with characters repeatedly calling him out on his personal and professional failings, whether he’s ready to listen or not.
To that end, Justin Long’s performance goes an extremely long way towards keeping Josh sympathetic – so much so that it’s difficult to imagine another actor who could have pulled it off in quite the same way. In particular, he has an entirely credible earnestness and an almost child-like enthusiasm that makes his various slip-ups believable, even if they cast him in a bad light.
Schechter structures the film as a learning curve for Josh. It’s frequently repeated that one of his main problems is that he just doesn’t listen. When he eventually does listen, it’s an extremely powerful moment that’s superbly written, directed and acted.
Schechter also finds interesting shades in Josh’s work problems, allowing room for various different sides and interpretations. While it’s clear that what Josh does is wrong, the reactions are very telling: on the one hand he’s taken to task by self-righteous advocates of so-called cancel culture, but there’s also a blackly comic – and slightly chilling – scene where a pair of aggrieved white male students try to make Josh the poster boy for their fightback campaign. The way the final viewpoint is presented is therefore all the more powerful for being almost drowned out by the more extreme versions.
The family moments in the film are equally impressive when it comes to delivering strong emotion. That’s partly down to Schechter’s script, but it’s also the result of note-perfect casting across the board when it comes to the supporting characters. Stand-outs include Schiff, whose hangdog face conveys every ounce of anguish at his impossible situation, Berlant, who’s just as capable of making things worse as Josh, and Fran Drescher, who’s torn in several different directions as the mother-daughter-ex-wife.
The film plays interesting games with conventional expectations, with two key set-ups not playing out the way you would traditionally expect. Far from being frustrating, it ends up feeling that much more real, rather than contrived, yet another point in this excellent film’s favour.
Safe Spaces is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.