To describe the plot of Tony Aloupis’ somber, and utterly ridiculous small-town indie, Safelight, would be like describing some kind of art house parody. It’s indie to an almost comic fault: Juno Temple plays a truck-stop hooker who befriends a crippled boy with a love of photography, so they escape their terrible lives by taking pictures of lighthouses. That kind of film only exists because movies like Safelight won’t let them die, but maybe this will be the final nail in the coffin they so richly deserve.
Written and directed by Tony Aloupis, who presents the film as maddeningly rigid as possible, the film begins when crippled Charles (Evan Peters, in pretty much the polar opposite of his Quicksilver role in X-Men: Days of Future Past) rescues comely prostitute Vicki (Temple) from a beating at the hands of her pimp boyfriend, Skid (Kevin Alejandro), drawing the violent ire we know will explode later on. That’s how these movies go. Charles’ life sucks something terrible: His best friend is a wiseacre played by Christine Lahti; his father (Jason Beghe) is dying; his brother died in the Vietnam War (this is a period piece for no apparent reason); he’s terrorized by three bullies who always seem to be hanging around in the same spot every day. Why doesn’t Charles go a different route to his lousy cashier job at the truck stop? Oh, and his mother left the family after he was born. But his life is peaches compared to Vicki’s; apparently the only hooker servicing the rarely-seen truckers at this particular stop. Skid is a dangerous psychopath with no problems raping her in broad daylight. She feels safe and valued when Charles is around, and he gets a chance to break out of his shell with the only hottest girl in town.
Sounds like the setup for at the bare minimum a romantic coming-of-age story, right? Where two lost souls find the one they were always meant to be with? Maybe, if there were any kind of romantic chemistry between Temple and Peters, or if Aloupis had any interest in exploring sexual tension between their characters. Instead he’s more concerned with having them talk in platitudes that could have been ripped from Hallmark cards. It isn’t bad enough the entire plot sounds like a film that should be on the Oxygen Network, but the disingenuous screenplay backs up that assertion. From scenes of Vicki and Charles literally screaming into the wind (They’re free! Don’t you get it!?), to the dying father’s profound words of wisdom immediately before croaking, to the violent final showdown between Charles and Skid, everything about this film is riddled with worn-out cliches. Cliche is fine; every movie has them to some degree, but they aren’t even well executed cliches and that’s Safelight’s biggest issue.
Somewhere along the way Juno Temple became the go-to gal for playing white trash characters with a heart of gold. She’s good at it, and she slips into the role well here, too. She brings a vulnerability and hopefulness that is endearing even when the rest of the film lets her down. That the film doesn’t get bogged down in moralizing over her life choice is a nice touch. Given that we’ve seen this story before and didn’t like it then, Safelight should perhaps just be called “safe”.